Google has reportedly refused to cooperate with police - at least not without a court order.
For me this case sits right at the boundary between what society considers as public and private. It raises some important points, such as:
- How do we treat photographs and video taken in a public place?
- Where should private individuals and corporations draw the line between informally helping police with a legitimate enquiry and protecting potentially sensitive personal information?
- Has the state gone too far in bypassing or side-lining the courts when requesting or seizing personal information?
Owners of CCTV cameras across the country routinely co-operate with police, helping solve crimes; although there is understandable concern over attempts to force publicans and license holders to allow police unfettered access to CCTV systems as a condition of holding an license to serve alcohol as this shifts the relationship from consensual cooperation into police control.
I doubt there is any part of the Data Protection Act 1998 that prevents Google cooperating with police in this case.
But on the other hand I'm concerned by many other scenarios where judicial oversight on access to personal information has been sidelined by successive laws, and Google taking a stand highlights some important related issues.
A few examples: only last year at the end of the Labour government, a clause (S57) was added to the budget (Finance Act 2010) to allow postal packets to be opened without a court order or in the presence of the addressee. This was billed as an "essential" measure to cut down on trafficking and tax evasion. Fair enough, but why sideline the courts and allow this to happen without the safeguard of a court order?
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is a classic example of how the courts are losing their oversight over police and other authorities whenever they access personal information. Okay, this is a slightly contentious point, as when the act was introduced it did force many authorities to oversee, via in-house processes, some surveillance practices that were previously unregulated.
But one issue of concern is how the UK's main surveillance law divides personal electronic records such as email logs and telephone calls into 2 categories: "traffic data" and "content". You might assume the identity of people you email or telephone should be personal and private to you, but since the "who called whom and when" is classed as traffic data, police - and even your local authority - can request this information from telecommunication service providers without a court order.
Another issue of concern is the seemingly routine seizure of computer equipment and mobile phones from many people arrested on suspicion of any of a long list of crimes (often referred to as trigger offences and trigger powers) under Section 18 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
MP Damian Green had computer equipment seized when his home and parliamentary office was searched following his arrest on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office. Much has been written about how these charges were arrived at, and how subsequent police raids and seizures were carried out.
In theory police must have reasonable grounds for suspecting the items seized may hold evidence in relation to the offence a suspect was arrested for, but there is no judicial oversight as a warrant is not required once an arrest has been made for an indictable offence, and the internet is awash with anecdotal evidence of people claiming they were arrested on questionable evidence before having electronic equipment seized.
Electronic equipment seizures seems particularly prevalent for public order offences in relation to protests such as the climate change protests over the last few years; and, more recently, student protests. It seems particularly unfair that police are able to access such a wealth of extremely personal information just because someone is suspected of demonstrating - or in at least one case the pre-emptive thought crime of planning to demonstrate - without a court order.
So in summary, yes, I believe Google should hand over the images (if they exist) without a court order, as the images are taken in a public place and are clearly no more sensitive than many TV news reports.
However, there are many other cases where I feel judicial oversight should be restored or introduced in order to protect legitimate rights of privacy, particularly in relation to electronic devices that hold a vast amount of sensitive personal information, and Google taking a stand as reported might help to raise awareness of these issues.