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Should taking photos be seen as an act of terror?

Kurt Barling | 13:17 UK time, Friday, 18 December 2009

"Hostile reconnaissance" is the term the police have given to the gathering of information on key London targets by people who may then use this information to assist in the commission of acts of terror.

Actually it is not just police officers and PCSOs who stop photographers.

My daughter is doing an A level in photography and we ventured down to the vicinity around Canary Wharf a few weekends ago.

We were stopped and questioned at least a dozen times by all manner of security types, none of them police officers.

The approach was mostly polite, but sometimes downright rude.

Once we explained that we were taking photographs for an A Level project most relented although insisted that we should have obtained a permit first.


The reason, Canary Wharf is not linked with the surrounding areas by public highways. Canary Wharf and its surroundings is a private estate and as such it can regulate who does what on their property.

As my daughter wanted to take some pictures on the Tube, we enquired about that too.

She paid for a student permit and then checked in with security at each station she took photographs.

Again, some station managers were extremely polite, others were quite blunt; one told my daughter in no uncertain terms if they didn't like what she was doing "I will have you kicked out of the station, because I don't have to let you be here."

It therefore comes as no surprise each time I hear anecdotal evidence from ordinary Londoners, tourists and professionals that they have been stopped and questioned by police officers simply because they are taking pictures.

As a working BBC journalist in London it's actually become quite common, since the July 2005 bombings of the tube, to be approached by police officers to ask what you are up to.

The National Union of Journalists and the British Press Photographers' Association claim that the same laws used to stop me and my colleagues are being used to harass photographers.

This is definitely a change in working practices and sometimes my colleagues have even been issued with stop and question notices by police officers.

No-one has yet insisted that I cannot film a particular event (although that has been suggested on a couple of occasions).

Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 police are entitled to stop and search anyone without reasonable grounds if they are in a designated area.

Designated generally seems to mean in the vicinity of important public buildings likely to present a suitable target for terrorists.


Unaccustomed as we are in London to being approached by police officers if we are innocent of a crime this whole change has understandably caused some consternation. Particularly when some over-zealous officer says certain buildings cannot be photographed or certain images need to be removed.

That is probably the reasoning behind this week's release by City of London Police of footage from a mobile phone seized by beat officers from someone they suspected of gathering "hostile reconnaissance" in July 2008.

That individual was convicted of fraud charges and deported to Algeria.

Moving footage on his mobile phone suggested a level of detailed information on the workings of the tube system. Police say they released the information to "balance" the debate over the use of stop and search.

Whilst the footage confirms that the concept of "hostile reconnaissance" is credible, it will do little to allay the fears of others that the state is creeping into areas traditionally seen as unacceptable by ordinary citizens.

Senior police management re-issued guidance to their patrolling officers last week which suggests they recognise that the powers under section 44 should be used very carefully.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates told his officers, "We risk losing public support when they are used in circumstances that most reasonable people would consider inappropriate."

In short there are no restrictions on taking photographs in public places or of front-line police officers. The act of taking a photograph is not usually sufficient reason to carry out a stop and search.

Police officers do not have the power to delete images, destroy film or prevent photography in public places.

Of course, if you want to take your camera to Canary Wharf, different rules still apply.

You have been warned.


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