privacy


The News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, campaigned to allow parents to find out where paedophiles live, the so-called Sarah’s Law. Sarah Payne was a girl who was murdered by a previously convicted paedophile. The campaign has been partially successful and pilots are underway around the country. The police feared vigilantism. This has not happened because the scope of the scheme has been restricted to enquiring about specific individuals who have contact with one’s children. It is not an open list of paedophiles. The police carry out a risk assessment before deciding to respond.

There is a balance between public protection and the right to privacy. The risk of a child being snatched is greater in the vicinity of paedophiles. Even if the risk is low, many parents would like to know if there is a specific risk. Meanwhile society wants to rehabilitate the low-risk convicted paedophiles so they can rebuild their lives and put their past behind them. In these circumstances, the right to privacy gives way to the need for public protection. The right to privacy is surrendered upon conviction.

The mother behind the campaign, Sarah Payne, has been recognised for her extraordinary achievement in bringing about greater openness in hereunto private information. She has received an honour from the Queen. She has also recently become our first Victim’s Champion and will speak up for victims who are now at the centre of the criminal justice system. This new role raises a fundamental constitutional issue.

Emphasising victimhood marks a further departure away from justice for defendants. Currently, Victim Impact Statements are read out at the end of a trial prior to sentencing which capture the sorrowful nature of the offence. It is for the judge to decide on sentencing bearing in mind all aspects of the case. Under our legal system the sentencing is based primarily upon culpability, not on consequence. This is why death by driving cases cause so much anguish. A single moment’s inattention is not punished with life imprisonment. An eloquent impact statement should not lead to a more severe penalty than one where the family does not prepare a statement.

There is a further concern if the Victim’s Champion is also a progenitor of an eponymous law. To what extent is the Victim’s Champion pursuing a personal agenda? If the country is to introduce such a role, it should be defined in an objective way. What is meant by a victim? Who can speak for victims? What do victims need? How can the court experience be improved? What happens if the defendant is found Not Guilty? A Home Office Minister should answer these questions properly and after a due political process. Fundamental questions should not be left to a celebrated victim with a strong media presence.

Street View is an application from Google which displays a drive-through photographic view of each road. The level of detail captured by the photographic record is comparable to that a passer by might notice. I have used it to explore the streets of my childhood. One wall where we used to play in the street looked so tall to me as a small child – but now it has unaccountably shrunk. The entrance to my primary school looks tiny. I looked to see if the crane flies and spiders webs were still there – phew, I couldn’t see them.

Street View opens up the possibility of a visual history of our lives. Quite often I pass by a demolished site and strive to remember what was there before. With one-in-seven retail sites being closed at any point, it is hard to keep up. Old houses are redeveloped. The visual landscape remains in memories and some old photographs but one cannot find a visual history. I want to rewind to the places that used to exist. Peoples’ lives were shaped by stores like Woolworths and local grocers and bakers and butchers. Mums carrying heavy bags would stop by the Lyons Corner House for a pot of tea and some cake. Dad would pop into the King’s Head for a quick pint and a smoke. These social historical landmarks have disappeared within one lifetime.

The initial British reaction to Street View is typically circumspect. Firstly, there is the Privacy argument that our homes should not appear on the internet for all to see. This is not very convincing from the country with a higher density of CCTV cameras than any place else on earth. There is no law against taking pictures from a public space (unless for criminal purposes). Residents of private roads would have a better claim to privacy. Secondly, there is the argument that burglars would find it easier to case a joint and select their getaway route using their (stolen) laptop. It is difficult to believe that this will lead to much additional crime. If only some our criminals were to adopt such a systematic approach to the rest of their lives, then they may not need to break into houses. The fact is that all new technologies enable criminal activities but these also bring new modes of fighting crime. Mobile phones are used by gangs to communicate – but phone records can be used to show the connections between the suspects and the events. Leaving a trace of a search on a particular address which was burgled could be incriminating.

Those who object to having their property viewable on the internet can request it be removed. Yet this is likely to attract more attention. Why would someone want their property to be blanked out? Perhaps they have something valuable to protect. No doubt there will be a service showing all the places that Google redacted. The fatal flaw with being a white moth in an industrial landscape is that all the predators notice you. Surely it is far better to blend into the anonymity of familiarity. Sensitive commercial or government buildings are often characterised by nondescript architecture without any signage. There is no need to depart from this stratagem.

There are plenty of groups for whom the new visual convenience will be of great benefit. Tourists will explore from afar and know what to expect. Disabled people will anticipate access issues. House hunters save legwork and petrol. Car parkers want to know where looks safe. Parents can see where their children live.

Perhaps in exchange for being allowed global domination, Google should have a Global Service Obligation to archive all systemic public knowledge. Regarding Street View, let’s define some obligtions: where vehicles obscure views, send the photocar again; update each photo regularly; create time-views going back to the earliest records. We want nothing less than the map of the world for modern times.

The ancients were not allowed to meet face-to-face with their ruler. They would stoop low to show obeisance. Bowing can be quite a sophisticated art when conducted properly. A vestige of this is to be found in the etiquette when encountering the Queen. The practice is being revived in an unexpected manner. Media types tell us that it is now illegal to take photographs of police constables. As the police symbolise State authority, it seems we can no longer look at photographs of our rulers.

The relevant statute is the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which makes it an offence to elicit information about a constable which is likely to be useful to a terrorist. Since taking a photograph may be construed as eliciting information, then photographers could find themselves arrested.

Any citizen wary of oppressive government will wonder if this is another example of the State over-reacting to the “terrorist threat”. However, looking more closely at the law, a different story emerges. The latest Act amends an earlier one – the Terrorism Act 2000 – which had already prohibited photography useful for terrorism. The amendment makes it clear that the prohibition includes taking photos of police constables. The logic of the prohibition is as follows:

2000 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism.
2008 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism including photos of constables.

The scope of the 2008 Act was already included in the 2000 Act. It was already illegal to take photographs of constables if useful for terrorism. Yet the 2008 Act has generated much ire. People seem to ignore the logic of inclusion. Cognitive psychologist have a name for this – the Inclusion Fallacy.

There are two explanations for the Inclusion Fallacy in the political context: the trigger effect and the short-term memory effect. The first is based on the notion that an underlying grievance needs a trigger to bring it to public attention. Photo-journalists will naturally be keen to ensure that their freedom does not get usurped by the law-makers. They need the trigger to raise it up the political agenda and perhaps deter the government from pursuing even more restrictive policies. The short-term memory effect ignores the past. What counts is the here and now, the latest change. Given that the amendment specifies police constables then, under this view, the government must be tightening up on photographing constables.

Should we be worried? The latest amendment has arguably reduced the likelihood that a photographer would get arrested in normal circumstances. The courts will know that there is an emphasis on protecting members of the security forces and police constables who may be the target of terrorist activity. Crucially, police will need to be reasonable in enforcing the prohibition on photography. Nobody wants tourists outside Buckingham Palace to be arrested. Ironically, it is not prohibited to take a photograph of our Monarch when she fulfilling her public duties.

When the phone rings at home on a weekday I am suspicious. The only calls at that time are from people or robots selling me something. But this call was different. First of all, it wasn’t a withheld number. Secondly, it was a mature woman’s voice with a lilting Welsh accent. She sounded genuine. She was trying to get in contact with a neighbour of mine. She had written to her friend but the letter had been returned. Could I pop round with a message for the new occupier asking to pass on a message to call Wendy. As the house was only a few doors from me I didn’t think that would be an imposition. But I was curious to know how Wendy had obtained my phone number. She explained that she was on the internet and typed in the local postcode and found my phone number.

It would be really handy if such a lookup facility existed for the general public – but as far as I am aware it doesn’t – even 192.com is not that accommodating. I asked for the name of the website. Wendy told me it was called ASP. Since .asp is a webpage suffix it is possible that Wendy had got a bit mixed up. So this little old lady from Caerphilly had the nous to find out my home phone number but couldn’t remember the name of the website. I supposed that was possible but the incongruity was growing. I pressed further – could she not simply write again to the occupier. She could, but it would be quicker if I did it. Yes, quicker for her, but not for me. I felt I was being drawn unwittingly into somebody else’s world.
I didn’t want to pry, but what was the urgency, what was the letter about? It was marked private and confidential, you see. Finally, Wendy said that she did not know what was in the letter. She only dealt with returned mail. She worked for a company, she was in the post room. What sort of company is that? Well, it’s a “multi-service provider” she said. Suddenly I realised what was happening. The person at the other end of the phone portrayed herself as looking for a long lost friend and had randomly found my name on the internet which she barely understood. But then she used gobbledegook like “multi-service provider”. The game was up. I politely said that I was not able to assist and so the call ended.

There is a useful lookup site Who calls me which I checked to see who was calling me. It turns out they are a debt collection company. Its modus operandi includes calling neighbours. Previous visitors to the lookup site had conveniently posted the contact details of the organisation. I called up and registered a complaint. Of course, they don’t have a complaints register but I let it be known to the two people I spoke to that I felt their organisation was acting in an unethical way. I was told that their only obligation was to their clients. As a general member of the public I would have to make any complaint to the Financial Ombudsman. So fluent was the response that it is clear that they have this type of complaint fairly often.

I am aggrieved that my home phone number was accessed by a private company in the ruthless pursuit of a debtor. I was misled by the company as to the nature of its operation. The last time I had an unsolicited text message informing me I had won a dream holiday I reported it to the regulator. That company was fined.