Police could be forced to destroy huge archives of surveillance photographs taken at protests, riots and football matches following a landmark judgment.
Appeal Court judges ruled yesterday that a law-abiding arms trade activist had his human rights breached when police took photos of him at a protest and kept them on file.
In a judgment that could change the way all UK police forces monitor protesters, the Metropolitan Police was told to destroy all pictures of Andrew Wood.
It could mean police will have to sift through hundreds of thousands of stored surveillance photos and destroy pictures of any innocent subject who complains.
However, a one-month delay was granted yesterday to allow an appeal to the House of Lords.
The ground-breaking case marks another blow to ‘Big Brother’ surveillance tactics increasingly favoured by police.
It follows last month’s European Court ruling forcing the Home Office to stop indefinitely storing DNA profiles of people who are arrested but never charged.
Forces across the UK have spent years amassing huge numbers of ‘overt surveillance’ pictures, and police photographers are a familiar sight at major gatherings.
Senior officers claim the tactic helps identify extremist activists, violent football thugs and anarchists trying to hijack mainstream events. It also provides vital evidence for later prosecutions.
Yesterday’s decision centred on Mr Wood, a leading member of the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Mr Wood, who has never been arrested, attended the AGM of Reed Elsevier PLC, parent company of Spearhead Exhibitions, which runs arms trade fairs.
Mr Wood, of Oxford, was entitled to be at the meeting at a Central London hotel having bought a share in the company.
But an intelligence unit of Scotland Yard, which was policing a
protest outside, photographed him, later claiming he had been seen talking to violent activists.
Mr Wood, backed by rights group Liberty, complained that taking and keeping photographs of him breached his right to privacy under European law.
He lost his initial case last year but yesterday two out of three Appeal Court judges ruled in his favour, declaring the police tactics a ‘disproportionate interference’.
Lord Justice Dyson said it was legitimate for police to take the
photographs, but it should have been clear within days Mr Wood was of good character and there was no need to keep his pictures.
Lord Dyson added the justification police offered in court – that Mr Wood might commit an offence at an upcoming arms trade protest – was not enough to justify interference with his rights.
Lord Collins of Mapesbury said he was ‘struck by the chilling effect on the exercise of lawful rights’ being followed by a police photographer has.
But Lord Justice Laws disagreed, saying he believed the police acted within ‘the margin of operational discretion’ in keeping the photographs.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman last night defended the force’s conduct, saying overt photography was ‘truly valuable’.
Chief Superintendent Ian Thomas, who runs the Met’s public order branch, said: ‘Overt photography helps us build a picture of who is involved in organising any potential disorder or crime.
‘It may also provide us with evidence for legal proceedings.
‘There is nothing secretive or covert about the way we do this, and this practice is very well understood in protester circles.’
It is understood Scotland Yard is considering whether to appeal.