Friday, June 19, 2009

Don't take too many photos in England – you could be treated like a terrorist

Well, not exactly, but it's still disturbing nonetheless: there are certain areas in Britain where photographing them can lead to you being forcibly stopped and searched by the police, without a warrant or even probable cause. This is following their Terrorism Act 2000 in response to the growing terrorism climate, but seriously – I doubt many picture-takers have bomb locations in mind when they're taking a few snapshots of pretty scenery or interesting structures, or people they've met.

It gets worse, though. The real problem is that no-one even knows which these areas are, so basically you can never assume its safe to take snapshots in Britain, no matter where you are. Hmm.

The Home Office has rejected a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the BJP regarding the disclosure of the list of all areas where police officers are authorised to stop-and-search photographers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

The controversial Act of Parliament, put into force in 2001, allows Chief Constables to request authorisation from the Home Secretary to define an area in which any constable in uniform is able to stop and search any person or vehicle for the prevention of acts of terrorism. The authorisation, which can be given orally, must be renewed every 28 days and only covers the areas specified in the Chief Constables' requests.

While it is common knowledge that the entire City of London, at the behest of the Metropolitan Police, is covered by the legislation, it remains unclear which other areas in England and Wales have requested the stop-and-search powers.

In response to British Journal of Photography readers giving their concerns about these badly-implemented laws and themselves being stopped and searched numerous times, the BJP has since filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to try and discover just which sites are on the prohibited list, but were basically told to "go away" each time.

The request asked for a 'full list of all areas - in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - subject to Section 44 Terrorism Act 2000 authorisations, which the Home Office has a statutory duty to be aware of.'

The request was rejected in late May on grounds of national security. 'In relation to authorisations for England and Wales, I can confirm that the Home Office holds the information that you requested. I am, however, not obliged to disclose it to you,' writes J Fanshaw of the Direct Communications Unit at the Home Office. 'After careful consideration we have decided that this information is exempt from disclosure by virtue of Section 24(1) and Section 31(1)(a-c) of the Freedom of Information Act.'

'Section 24(1) provides that information is exempt if required for the purposes of safeguarding National Security. Section 31(1)(a-c) provides that information is exempt if its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, or the administration of justice.'

The Home Office continues: 'In considering the public interest factors in favour of disclosure of the information, we gave weight to the general public interest in transparency and openness. This was considered in balance with not disclosing the information due to law enforcement and National Security issues.'

According to the Home Office's Direct Communications Unit, the disclosure of a Section 44 authorisation in a particular area is an operational matter for the police force covering that area. 'The Home Office believes that as Section 44 authorisations are used with up to date intelligence, to make any specific authorisation public could inadvertently release sensitive information. A list of authorisations that are in place could also allow any terrorists to act outside of them.

It's certainly reasonable to forbid certain areas from being photographed – nuclear facilities, military bases, research centers and whatnot – but for Pete's sake, at least tell the people which areas are not to be pictured. Not doing so is absurd and abusive of power, not to mention ridiculous, as I don't see how merely telling people which areas can't be photographed would constitute any real form of threat to national security. It's rubbish, I say.


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