Tag Archives: crime

Naming and shaming the innocent

Around this time last year I wrote two blog posts about two separate police forces’ decision to tweet the names of drivers charged (but not – yet, at least – convicted) of drink driving offences. In the latter example Staffordshire police were actually using a hashtag #drinkdriversnamedontwitter, and I argued that

If someone has merely been charged with an offence, it is contrary to the ancient and fundamental presumption of innocence to shame them for that fact. Indeed, I struggle to understand how it doesn’t constitute contempt of court to do so, or to suggest that someone who has not been convicted of drink-driving is a drink driver. Being charged with an offence does not inevitably lead to conviction. I haven’t been able to find statistics relating to drink-driving acquittals, but in 2010 16% of all defendants dealt with by magistrates’ courts were either acquitted or not proceeded against

The Information Commissioner’s Office investigated whether there had been a breach of the first principle of Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), which requires that processing of personal data be “fair and lawful”, but decided to take no action after Staffs police agreed not to use the hashtag again, saying

Our concern was that naming people who have only been charged alongside the label ‘drink-driver’ strongly implies a presumption of guilt for the offence. We have received reassurances from Staffordshire Police the hashtag will no longer be used in this way and are happy with the procedures they have in place. As a result, we will be taking no further action.

But my first blog post had raised questions about whether the mere naming of those charged was in accordance with the same DPA principle. Newspaper articles talked of naming and “shaming”, but where is the shame in being charged with an offence? I wondered why Sussex police didn’t correct those newspapers who attributed the phrase to them.

And this year, Sussex police, as well as neighbouring Surrey, and Somerset and Avon are doing the same thing: naming drivers charged with drink driving offences on twitter or elsewhere online. The media happily describe this as a “naming and shaming” tactic, and I have not seen the police disabusing them, although Sussex police did at least enter into a dialogue with me and others on twitter, in which they assured us that their actions were in pursuit of open justice, and that they were not intending to shame people. However, this doesn’t appear to tally with the understanding of the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner who said earlier this year

I am keen to find out if the naming and shaming tactic that Sussex Police has adopted is actually working

But I also continue to question whether the practice is in accordance with police forces’ obligations under the DPA. Information relating to the commission or alleged commission by a person of an offence is that person’s sensitive personal data, and for processing to be fair and lawful a condition in both of Schedule Two and, particularly, Schedule Three must be met. And I struggle to see which Schedule Three condition applies – the closest is probably

The processing is necessary…for the administration of justice
But “necessary”, in the DPA, imports a proportionality test of the kind required by human rights jurisprudence. The High Court, in the MPs’ expenses case cited the European Court of Human Rights, in The Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979) 2 EHRR 245  to the effect that

while the adjective “necessary”, within the meaning of article 10(2) [of the European Convention on Human Rights] is not synonymous with “indispensable”, neither has it the flexibility of such expressions as “admissible”, “ordinary”, “useful”, “reasonable” or “desirable” and that it implies the existence of a “pressing social need.”
and went on to hold, therefore that “necessary” in the DPA

should reflect the meaning attributed to it by the European Court of Human Rights when justifying an interference with a recognised right, namely that there should be a pressing social need and that the interference was both proportionate as to means and fairly balanced as to ends
So is there a pressing social need to interfere with the rights of people charged with (and not convicted of) an offence, in circumstances where the media and others portray the charge as a source of shame? Is it proportionate and fairly balanced to do so? One consideration might be whether the same police forces name all people charged with an offence. If the intent is to promote open justice, then it is difficult to see why one charging decision should merit online naming, and others not.But is the intent really to promote open justice? Or is it to dissuade others from drink-driving? Supt Richard Corrigan of Avon and Somerset police says

This is another tool in our campaign to stop people driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. If just one person is persuaded not to take to the road as a result, then it is worthwhile as far as we are concerned.

and Sussex police’s Chief Inspector Natalie Moloney says

I hope identifying all those who are to appear in court because of drink or drug driving will act as a deterrent and make Sussex safer for all road users

which firstly fails to use the word “alleged” before “drink or drug driving”, and secondly – as Supt Corrigan – suggests the purpose of naming is not to promote open justice, but rather to deter drink drivers.

Deterring drink driving is certainly a worthy public aim (and I stress that I have no sympathy whatsoever with those convicted of such offences) but should the sensitive personal data of who have not been convicted of any offence be used to their detriment in pursuance of that aim?

I worry that unless such naming practices are scrutinised, and challenged when they are unlawful and unfair, the practice will spread, and social “shame” will be encouraged to be visited on the innocent. I hope the Information Commissioner investigates.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

3 Comments

Filed under Data Protection, human rights, Information Commissioner, Open Justice, police, social media

You can’t take it with you

A paralegal has been convicted for taking client data with him when he left his role. Douglas Carswell MP denies taking Tory Party data, but what of his civil obligations with the data he has retained?

I blogged recently about the data protection implications of the news that Douglas Carswell MP was resigning his seat and seeking re-election as a UKIP MP. I mused on the fact that UKIP were reported to be “purring” over the data he was bringing with him, and I questioned whether, if this was personal data of constituents, his processing was compliant with his obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998. Paul Bernal blogged as well, and Paul was quoted in a subsequent article in The Times (which now seems to have been moved, or removed), in which Carswell defended himself against allegations of illegality

“Any data that the Conservative Party gathered while I was a member of the Conservative party is, was and must remain the property of the Conservative party.” He said that the suggestion that he had taken such information was “desperate briefing from within the Tory machine” and was extremely regrettable. The former MP did say, however, that he planned to use his own private data gathered during nine years as a Conservative MP. He insisted that he would not be sharing this with UKIP

With respect to Mr Carswell, this still doesn’t convince me that no data protection concerns exist. If by his “own private data”, he means information about constituents which is their personal data, then I would still argue that such use could potentially be in contravention of his civil obligations under the first and second principles in Schedule One to the Data Protection Act 1998. As I said previously

If constituents have given Carswell their details on the basis that it would be processed as part of his constituency work as a Conservative MP they might rightly be aggrieved if that personal data were then used by him in pursuit of his campaign as a UKIP candidate

Even if he didn’t share such data with UKIP, data protection obligations would clearly be engaged.

It seems to me that his quote to The Times was perhaps to refute any possible allegations that his use of data was criminal. A recent prosecution by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) illustrates how taking personal data from one job, or one role, to another, without the consent of the data controller, can be a criminal offence. The offender was a paralegal at a Yorkshire solicitor’s practice who, before he left the firm, emailed himself (presumably to a private address) information, in the form of workload lists, file notes and template documents. However, the information also contained the personal data of over 100 clients of the firm. Accordingly, he was convicted of the offence at section 55 of the DPA, of (in terms) unlawfully obtaining personal data without the consent of the data controller. The fine was, as they tend to be for section 55 offences, small – £300, plus a £30 victim surcharge and £438.63 prosecution costs – but the offender’s future job prospects in the legal sector might be adversely affected.

The ICO’s Head of Enforcement Steve Eckersley is quoted, and though he talks in terms of “employees”, his words might well be equally applicable to people leaving elected posts

Employees may think work related documents that they have produced or worked on belong to them and so they are entitled to take them when they leave. But if they include people’s details, then taking them without permission is breaking the law

Mr Carswell was wise not to retain data for which the Conservative Party was data controller. But I’m still not sure about the (non-criminal) implications of his use of data for which he is data controller.

Leave a comment

Filed under crime, Data Protection, Information Commissioner

Twitter timeline changes – causing offence?

@jamesrbuk: Well that’s jarring: Twitter just put a tweet into my feed showing a still from the James Foley beheading video, from account I don’t follow

When the Metropolitan Police put out a statement last week suggesting that merely viewing (absent publication, incitement etc) the video of the beheading of James Foley, they were rightly challenged on the basis for this (conclusion, there wasn’t a valid one).

But what about a company which actively, by the coding of its software, communicates stills from the video to unwilling recipients? That seems to be the potential (and actual, in the case of James Ball in the tweet quoted above) effect of recent changes Twitter has made to its user experience. Tweets are now posted to users’ timelines which are not from people followed, nor from followers of people followed

when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting

I’m not clear on the algorithm that is used to select which unsolicited tweets are posted to a timeline, but the automated nature of it raises issues, I would argue, about Twitter’s responsibility and potential legal liability for the tweets’ appearance, particularly if the tweets are offensive to the recipient.

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 says

A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or

(b)causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

The infamous case of DPP v Chambers dealt with this provision, and although Paul Chambers was, thankfully, successful in appealing his ridiculous conviction for sending a menacing message, the High Court accepted that a tweet is a message sent by means of a public electronic communications network for the purposes of the Communications Act 2003 (¶25).

A still of the beheading video certainly has the potential to be grossly offensive, and also obscene. The original tweeter might possibly be risking the committing of a criminal offence in originally tweeting it, but what of Twitter, inserting into an unwilling recipient’s timeline?

Similarly, section 2 of the Terrorism Act 2006 creates an offence if a person is reckless at whether the distribution or circulation of a terrorist publication constitutes a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism (it’s possible this is the offence the Met were -oddly – hinting at in their statement).

I’m not a criminal lawyer (I’m not even a lawyer) so I don’t know whether the elements of the offence are made out, nor whether there are jurisdictional or other considerations in play, but it does strike me that the changes Twitter has made have the potential to produce grossly offensive results.

Leave a comment

Filed under police, social media