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Friday, 7 January 2011

At what point does helping police become an invasion of privacy?

An interesting debate has surfaced following a request made to Google from Derbyshire Police to help trace the owner of a vehicle in relation to the theft of a caravan.

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?
On one hand the raw footage requested by police (footage that Google might not even have) should not be considered personal or private.  It was taken in a public place.  Daily, outside broadcasts by news organisations incidentally capture car number plates or faces of passers by, yet are broadcast without obfuscation on national TV.

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.



  1. IMHO, it's better for Google to err on the side of privacy for both the public's piece of mind and that of their brand.

    Google's privacy policy with regards to Street View is well defined and very public.

    There are processes the police can go through to get the information and that's all Google is asking of them. They're doing the right thing, IMHO.

  2. On this occassion I have to disagree with you James. There is a very significant difference between broadcast media capturing a number plate in transit on the road network & Google capturing number plates of vehicles parked on private driveways - defined as private property not public spaces.

    Those number plates can be used to discover the name and address of the registered keeper so there is a privacy issue here which doesn't exist so much for vehicles in transit.

    Personally I believe broadcast media and press should also be required to blur out number plates as a matter of best practise.

    Furthermore, I absolutely believe that Google or any other company for that matter, should never submit to requests for data by the police without a court order - irrespective of the circumstances of the request or the purpose of the data.

  3. I disagree your general point Alexander, being able to openly report/photograph/record from a public space is as important to freedom as personal privacy.

    Citizens need to be free to report on events, part of an important safeguard, and the law recognises this by allowing filming and photography from a public place.

    It doesn't matter, under the current law, that the car is on a private driveway.

    The difficult job of courts and governments is striking the right balance between privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of information to balance power between state and individual.

    On the subject of Google, I perhaps agree with Chris above James. Google are right to err on the side of caution, and let a court decide.

    In fact, James, you seem to be arguing for increased judicial oversight, so why not let such requests go through a court so a corporation like Google is not left to make difficult judgement calls like this?

  4. I have to disagree with you A Thorpe - blurring number plates caught incidentally during recording in a public place does not in any way restrict such activities and goes further to protecting privacy of the public.

    There is zero public interest in the incidental exposure of personally identifiable information and equally zero risk to press/media and recording in public places by requiring such information to be blurred.


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