Can we trust the police to hold our information?

The end of an era! (Day 266 of 365)

Image by Gene Hunt via Flickr

The recent scandal that engulfed the News of the World and led to its closure has much wider implications, many of which are still coming to light.

The police have come under scrutiny after Rebekah Brooks revealed that journalists paid police for information. The former News of the World editor told a Commons committee in 2003 that journalists “had paid police for information in the past”, although last week Brooks denied that she had any “knowledge of any specific cases”.

The fallout from the phone-hacking scandal is affecting trust in the police, already leading to Met Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates‘ resignation after growing pressure. The Met’s director of public affairs, Dick Fedorcio, has also come under fire. Fedorcio was responsible for employing Neil Wallis, former News of the World deputy Editor, who was arrested last week on suspicion of intercepting voicemail messages. Fedorcio was allegedly wined and dined by News of the World journalists on at least seven occasions. On one occasion in 2006, the Evening Standard reports, “Mr Fedorcio and former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman met then NoW editor Andy Coulson and his deputy, Mr Wallis, for dinner at Soho House private members’ club in Covent Garden. At the time, Mr Hayman was in charge of the phone-hacking probe.”

Chris Bryant, MP, said: “A judge sitting in a court case on the newspaper would not be dining with its editors and I don’t see why members of Scotland Yard should have done either.”

The issue here is greater than that of a corrupt media empire which resorts to underhanded, illegal activities to sell sleazy stories. The real worry is the image of a corrupt and untrustworthy police force in an age of greater police power and surveillance. The police are continually expanding their powers and surveillance but they have not been able to show that they are to be trusted with such power and information.

Rebekah Brooks has alleged that journalists paid police for information. If this is true, as well as being an outrage, it would also destroy all trust in a service that is continually looking to increase its surveillance and create large databases of information on the public, many of whom have never been convicted of a criminal offence. Big Brother Watch reported that a new Police National Database has been launched which will be accessible by over 12,000 people. This database will link together 150 computer systems with intelligence from all 43 police forces in England and Wales, including other policing organisations such as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Taking eight years to finalise, the scheme was initiated by technology firm Logica – with contributions from other agencies including IBM Initiate, Huntsman, Microsoft Fact, Northgate, Oracle and Sunguard

This database will hold information over up to 15 million people, 6 million of whom are innocent or have been the victims of crime. Recent allegations and such scandals as the NotW phone-hacking affair have shown that the police force is not infallible. If Brooks’ allegations are true, then it shows that private information held by the police can be bought for a price.

Not only does it show that the police are susceptible to payments but recent hacking by the NotW and organisations such as LulzSec and Anonymous show that no information held on a website/database/mobile phone/etc is truly secure, so should we trust the police force and its obsession with ever-encompassing databases? Its obsession with ever-increasing mass surveillance?

I recently reported that the Met have bought have bought a security programme which can track suspects and their associates in the digital world, called Geotime. The security program is used by the US military. As I reported, ‘It can collate digital data and can be used to generate a three-dimensional graphic,  showing an individual’s movements and communications with other people. It can collect the information from social networking sites, satellite navigation equipment, mobile phones, IP logs, and even financial transactions.’

And, as I reported in the article, Alex Hanff, the campaigns manager at Privacy International, said: “Once millions and millions of pieces of microdata are aggregated, you end up with this very high-resolution picture of somebody, and this is effectively what they are doing here. We shouldn’t be tracked and traced and have pictures built by our own government and police for the benefit of commercial gain.”

Clearly, this sort of power, information and surveillance is not trusted in the hands of an organisation that is embroiled in scandal at the present time. What assurances are there that corrupt journalists, most likely from Murdoch’s empire, will not pay police in the future to gain access to such information? Software such as Geotime that can collate such private digital data is clearly more intrusive than hacking someone’s voicemails.

Sean Hoare, the former News of the World showbusiness reporter who was the first named journalist to allege that Andy Coulson was aware of phone hacking by his staff, has been found dead at at his home yesterday. Adding further fuel to the blazing fire that is engulfing the press, Parliament and the police, Hoare’s death is currently not being treated as suspicious by the police, but the timing is certainly odd. Hoare recently had told the New York Times that NotW journalists were able to use police technology to locate people using their mobile phone signals, in exchange for payments of course.

Hoare said journalists were able to use “pinging”, which measured the distance between a mobile handset and a number of phone masts to pinpoint its location. Hoare described how reporters would ask a news desk executive to obtain the location of a target: “Within 15 to 30 minutes someone on the news desk would come back and say ‘Right, that’s where they are.'”

Given these allegations, what assurances do we have that, in the future, journalists will not be able to use even more advances police technology to track people? As stated, software such as Geotime can generate a 3D graphic showing an individual’s movements and communications, and collate information from ‘social networking sites, satellite navigation equipment, mobile phones, IP logs, and even financial transactions’. If the wide-reaching NotW scandal erupted because of the hacking of mobile phones, what sort of implications would emerge once journalists paid police for information regarding an individual’s social networking sites, their IP logs, financial transactions, etc? When technology such as ‘pinging’ begins to look archaic and instead corrupt journalists can pay for a 3-dimensinal graphic showing an individual’s complete movements, their communications with others, etc?

The police need to prove, somehow, that they are trustworthy and responsible enough to handle such private and personal information. They need to show that they can securely and safely use software such as Geotime, which has many dangerous implications if used by corrupt individuals.


‘Responding to extremisms: media roles and responsibilities’

‘Responding to extremisms: media roles and responsibilities’, Bournemouth University, 15 July 2011

The oxygen of publicity or the right to a platform? How are different forms of extremism covered in our national media, and does this serve to marginalise or legitimise extremist groups? What are the media strategies of these groups, and what potential do social media have to change their prospects? What are or should be the relations between media professionals and police and security services, community organisations and other stakeholders? How will the media influence the success or otherwise of the soon to be revised PREVENT strategy?

On Friday 15th July, Bournemouth University hosted a one-day conference at Bournemouth University’s Executive Business Centre. The conference focused on extremism and in particular the media roles and responses to extremism. It was organised by Bournemouth University’s Media School and was run by CERB, the Containing Extremism Research Briefing (

CERB is a growing database of summaries of research articles related to various forms of contemporary extremism, with focus on its psychosocial dimensions and the role of the media. The CERB conference brought together various academics, journalists and speakers involved in responding to political or violent extremism, discussing such topics as:

–  How should media report the EDL?

– Freedom of Information vs National Security: Why Wikileaks adds a new dimension to an old dilemma

– What do the public think? Attitudes to extremism, violence and freedom of speech

– Counter-terrorism and the media

– Responding to the BNP: the media and the Far Right in contemporary Britain

The conference was be covered live all day, so those who were unable to make it in person could follow the debate live. Check out CERB_WS on Twitter for the tweets or go to the CERB archive for the tweets in chronological order.

For full coverage of the conference, including blogs, videos and podcasts, go to

The photos, tweets, blogs, videos and podcasts were put together by a team of students from Bournemouth University’s Media School (including myself)

The conference is linked to the development of a web-based resource for people working in this area, the Containing Extremism Research Briefing.