Facebook posts can mean prison

When I lived in Wigan, the most common response to seeing a copy of the local weekly, the Wigan Observer, was to turn to the page that showed who had been up in front of the magistrates. Like most people, what I wanted to know was whether anyone I had been to school with had broken into a shed or got drunk and hit a policeman with a fire extinguisher. In recent days, the Manchester Evening News, normally a paper with a rich and varied coverage, has been transformed by marathon court sittings into a multi-page version of the same thing. It’s an endless succession of self-destructive anecdotes – the guy identified by his Batman jumper, the chef who stole a camera ‘because he did not have one’, and the squaddie who tried to sell a £2000 Les Paul guitar that he claimed he had bought during the riots.
Today, I assume the MEN will go for the comparatively huge sentences for two chaps in Cheshire who tried (and thankfully, failed) to use Facebook to incite riots in Northwich and Warrington: http://tinyurl.com/3utotsu. However, the story is an object lesson in how so many people do not understand social media or electronic communications.
I’m paranoid. As far as possible, I never write anything in an email that I wouldn’t want to have broadcast. I had an email exchange recently where a friend sent increasingly rude and abusive jokes about a third party we both know, and all of my responses were basically “                    “ . I didn’t want my opinions on record, especially as the tone of an email is incredibly hard to judge.
On the other hand, Facebook, instant messaging and email allow some parts of society to extinguish the concept of an unexpressed thought. The Daily Mail is a rich seam of stories about people saying ridiculous and damaging things on Facebook and similar sites – the teacher who criticised her pupils http://tinyurl.com/3c65fkx or the girl sacked after describing her new job as ‘boring’ http://tinyurl.com/d4h9c5. The Mail still hasn’t thought of different way of illustrating these stories than asking the subject to pose in front of a computer, as if it’s impossible to understand the situation otherwise. In both of these cases, people’s careers are damaged; in others, (a quick Google search will show you many), people also get sacked, or damage their reputations or ruin their family lives.
Fast forward to today, and we see these two young men going to prison (and the Mail has another one here: http://tinyurl.com/4xpowny. Meanwhile, the DisabledGo News blog reports Facebook comments allegedly made by employees of Atos, the firm delivering the work programme, describing disabled clients as ‘parasitic wankers’ and ‘down and outs’: http://tinyurl.com/3bpvb66. This could have consequences both for their careers, and for the company’s contracts.
I’m far from the first to say this, but much as social media has connected the world in new and interesting ways, it has also opened the door for a lot of people to cause themselves huge damage. No matter who you are, the lesson has to be learned: THINK BEFORE YOU TYPE. Who might read what I have said? How might it be misinterpreted? Can I trust the recipients not to forward it on to everyone they know? Facebook encourages lots of friends, while an email is the ultimate form of portable, airborne information.

Naming and shaming

Last week, David Cameron asserted that “we will not let any phoney concerns about human rights” prevent the publication of images that might help identify rioters. I didn’t hear anyone raising such concerns, but Cameron clearly felt that the privacy and human rights mob were waiting in the wings to take over where the looters had left off. This weekend, Theresa May compounded this by stating that she thought that reporting restrictions should be lifted more often, replacing the standard line of ‘a 17 year old who cannot be named for legal reasons’ with the real name of the disagreeable young hoodlum.

I’ll leave the debate on stigma and shame for Peter Hitchens. The important point for information law is simply that there is nothing in the Human Rights Act or Data Protection that stops law enforcement agencies from publishing pictures of perps in order to identify them, nothing to stop them sharing images with the media to achieve this, and nothing to stop members of the public sending their own images to the media or the police. Even if the publication interfered with the privacy of rioters (which I doubt), identification of offenders would surely be necessary in a democratic society for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime (Article 8’s condition for interfering with privacy). Meanwhile, Data Protection neatly uses the same wording to allow the sharing of data in an exemption, while the sharing of images to identify rioters would surely be a “legitimate interest” that wouldn’t cause unwarranted harm.
Cutting through the schedules and sections, the summary is that you don’t have to ignore Human Rights and Data Protection – they fall entirely into line behind the sensible use of images to identify and apprehend offenders. What I’d like to know is why Cameron felt the need to make this remark as part of his landmark speech in Downing Street. I’m sure the Prime Minister’s Human Rights Act is as well-thumbed as mine, so surely he knows that privacy law supports criminal investigations. Was this a little smash-and-grab against Human Rights, just because the opportunity was there, and he couldn’t resist it?
Sounds familiar.