Political activists must watch what they say on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, sites which will become the “next big thing in law enforcement” , a leading human rights lawyer has warned.Well, it’s taken them long enough!
John Cooper QC said that police are monitoring key activists online and that officers and the courts are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to social media.I do love the sinister-sounding ‘monitoring online’, a phrase which conjures up shadowy operatives sitting at computer terminals in darkened rooms, conducting illicit operations.
Not the reality, which is probably one or two bored cops sitting at Coke can and crisp packet littered desks in modern open plan offices, resignedly clicking ‘Follow’ on Twitter or issuing ‘Friend’ requests on FaceBook…
Mr Cooper QC's warning comes after a New York court ordered Twitter to hand over messages posted on the site by a demonstrator belonging to the Occupy Wall Street movement in America. Malcolm Harris, 23, is accused of disorderly conduct after he was arrested on Brooklyn Bridge during a protest last October.
After a lengthy legal fight, Twitter eventually complied with an order to hand over the tweets on 14 September. Prosecutors hope to use them to disprove the demonstrator's defence that police escorted the protesters on to the bridge before arresting them for allegedly blocking it.You’d have to be dumber than a pot plant to think that Tweeting your every movement and action would not be held against you if you commit a criminal act, wouldn't you? And yet, some people clearly do…
While some argue that genuinely peaceful protesters can have little fear of arrest regardless of what they say online, Mr Cooper QC said: "It would be wrong to establish a general rule that private communications should be handed over to the police. The principle that the law enforcement agencies should establish relevance first should not be diluted."Here’s a hint – it’s not a ‘private communication’ if you publish it to a social media network. Just as a person who stands in Hyde Park with a megaphone isn’t having a ‘private conversation’.
And they don’t need to establish relevance if all they need to do to get access to your conversations is to click ‘Follow’.
In May, peaceful protester John Catt lost his legal fight to force police to delete information they hold on him on the National Extremism Database. Pictures of and references to him are held because of his links to protest groups.
But long-term activist Mr Catt argued that, since he has never been convicted of any crime, officers were not justified in recording the details. Lawyers for Mr Catt claimed that he is "logged and recorded wherever he goes" and that the surveillance at more than 55 protests had a "chilling effect" on people exercising the right to protest.Why? Does photographing police actions on riots and posting them to YouTube have a ‘chilling effect’ on the police doing their job? Of course not!
It does tend to have a ‘chilling effect’ on bad apples like PC Harwood though, and you know what? That’s all to the good!
But Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin sitting in the High Court refused to order police to remove references to him from the database, saying that recording his actions was a "predictable consequence" of regularly attending demonstrations.Well, indeed! But this monitoring of social media is still only going to catch the dim ones. And admittedly while that’s a huge grouping, it isn't all of them.
So one hopes the police aren't pinning all their hopes on it, just because it’s the easiest option...