Despite the never ending cuts that threaten to shred the police service into confetti (or so we are repeatedly told) it’s reassuring to know that one division of law enforcement remains intact. Not just intact but positively booming with an almost limitless supply of resources. And that is the army of blue, fighting the war on hurt feelings. And not just any-old-body’s hurt feelings either. I’m talking about the feelings of minority interest groups who have staked a special claim to victimhood, just by virtue of their culture or beliefs. Or ‘communities’ as they are referred to in police vernacular.
One such special interest group is the LGBT community; Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transexuals – as if you didn’t know. And if you didn’t know, shame on you. Maybe you’re a closet hater who needs monitoring by the police’s own in-house thought crime department: the Met LGBT Network. A Twitter account, maintained by police employees, whose job it is to go searching the internet for anyone who says anything remotely critical of LGBTs, so they can be tarred and feathered with the ‘hate crime’ brush.
Here’s one such comment they isolated back in 2016, that had been Tweeted to the Daily Mail. Because as we all know, the Daily Mail is a hive of pitchfork wielding blackshirts and deserving of special scrutiny from plod.
Is the whole of teamgb gay and / or ethnic?
This prompted the Met LGBT Network to retweet it with the following remark:
MET LGBT Network:
Another reason for our Network. An undercurrent of homophobia, racism and just general nastiness right here.
Mr. X saw the Tweet, and was incredulous. He’d never heard of the Met LGBT Network and asked if they were genuine Police employees. They wrote back:
MET LGBT Network:
Yes, and feel free to write to Scotland Yard with your request re staff details.
MET LGBT Network:
We’re a staff support assoc. within @metpoliceuk but we also focus on hate crime and responding to trollers #AC
At this point another Twitter user chimed in that the Met only seemed interested in targeting heterosexuals with allegations of hate crime, to which they replied:
MET LGBT Network:
@MrX @Capxxxxx we’re very welcoming of straight people. My mum is straight and she loves gay people #lovewins #equality #joinus
That was then followed with:
MET LGBT Network:
@MrX delighted you’ve taken an interest in us. We’ll take an interest too. Open source is a goldmine. Give my love to Caroline #AC
Mr. X was dumbfounded. The name Caroline was clearly a reference to his wife. Why had her name been mentioned and how had the Tweeters at the Met LGBT Network discovered it, given that she had not been mentioned once during the exchange?
Clearly, someone at Scotland Yard had made a search against Mr X’s name, for no other reason than to intimidate him into believing he – and his family – were being monitored.
Mr. X lodged a complaint with the Met police, as to the oppressive and malicious nature of the comments, as well as the intimidating behaviour of the anonymous LGBT author. True to form, the police disregarded the complaint, and instead heaped blame onto Mr. X, furthering the implication that his original tweet to the Daily Mail constituted a hate crime.
It wasn’t until late 2017 that Mr. X got in contact with me, to ask if there was any legal action he could bring against the police. My answer was an unequivocal, ‘yes.’
Assessing the claim
The Met LGBT Network’s first tweet was unambiguous and attempted to defame Mr. X by suggesting he was ‘homophobic, racist and nasty.’ As this statement was placed on a police account, it also gave the impression that his comments constituted a hate crime. In so doing, it attempted to name-and-shame him and invite a public contempt that would not otherwise have existed had the comment not been editorialised with the Met LGBT’s defamatory opinion of him. By referring to him as a ‘troller’, the author furthered the defamation and wrongful assertion that Mr. X maliciously intended to stir up trouble and hatred toward others.
The final Tweet had an air of threat about it. It gave the deliberate impression that the commenter had conducted some kind of search on Mr. X and had extended the police’s ‘interest’ in him to members of his family.
I advised Mr X that he should sue the Metropolitan police for breach of data protection and harassment.
Data protection laws
Publishing personal data on the internet, for reasons not purely domestic, constitutes an act of processing, to which the Data Protection Act 1998 (which was in force when the incident occurred) applies. Any information about an identifiable individual can be personal data – even if it is in the public domain. There is no blanket exemption for data that appears in the public domain.
Under basic interpretative provisions of section 1 of the Data Protection Act “personal data” means:
“(1) Data which relate to a living individual who can be identified—
(a)from those data, or
(b)from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller, and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual”
In the case of Mr. X, the Met LGBT Network author included an opinion about him which was, among other things, inaccurate and excessive. It also breached multiple data protection principles set out in Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998.
By attributing the original remark to the commission, or alleged commission, of an offence, the police’s tweets could be regarded as containing sensitive personal data as defined within section 2 of the DPA:
(2) In this Act “sensitive personal data” means personal data consisting of information as to…
(g) the commission or alleged commission by him of any offence.
Sensitive personal data is subject to additional safeguards and procedures. Under the DataProtection Act the mishandling and processing of Mr. X’s data was excessive, irresponsible and unlawful.
In the case of Mrs. X, it was not entirely clear how the Met LGBT Network author obtained her first name or on what basis any search was performed. Even if that search consisted of nothing more than looking at Mr. X’s list of Twitter followers, that data had been retrieved using police systems. The posting of her first name implied an obvious relationship to Mr. X and as such she could be readily identified. Therefore this processing of Mrs. X’s personal data was excessive and irresponsible and a breach of data protection.
Under section 13 of the Data Protection Act 1998, any individual who suffers damage due to any contraventions of the Act is entitled to compensation from the data controller. In this instance the data controller is the Police Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
The established authority on awards for data protection breaches of this type is Halliday v Creation Consumer Finance which awarded the claimant £750. In line with this, and as both Mr X and his wife had been the subject of unlawful data processing, I set the data protection breaches at £1500.
The Met LGBT Network author’s actions also amounted to harassment as prohibited by section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The actual offence of harassment is created under section 2.
Section 7 of the Protection from Harassment Act interprets harassment as a ‘course of conduct on at least two occasions’ that causes alarm and distress. The Met LGBT Network author’s commentary and reposting of Mr. X’s initial tweet was a deliberate attempt to cause him alarm and distress. It was not pursued for the purpose of preventing and detecting crime, nor was it pursued under any enactment or rule of law, nor in the circumstances was it reasonable – all of which are defences to harassment under the Act.
No matter how offensive Mr. X’s original remark was taken to be, the Met’s tweets were by themselves offensive, abusive and threatening. Under section 3 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 Mr. X was entitled to bring a claim for compensation for an actual breach of section 1, for the alarm and distress caused by the tweets.
Awards for harassment damages are approached in comparison to awards for discrimination (Martins v Choudhary 2007), which prompted the Tribunals Judiciary to issue guidance in respect of damages for categories of civil claims. These ‘Vento Bands’, as they are known, set the lower band of compensation at £800.
Aggravated damages were also assessed at £1300 due to the gross misuse of police systems and the public nature of the defaming remarks. The Met LGBT Twitter account had many thousands of followers, most of which would have taken exception to his initial remark, as was intended by the Met’s retweeting of it.
Mr. X employed me to compose a detailed letter of claim to the Met police, which set the final damages at £4000.
The Metropolitan police lawyers, to their credit, handled the claim respectfully and made a settlement offer of £2750.
Lessons will be learned
What this demonstrates is that police employees, as well as local authorities in general, need to be extremely careful about the way they use social media as a tool to obtain information, especially when it is used as a means of naming and shaming members of the public, or digging up useful pieces of information to further a quasi-investigation. Just because data is freely available on the internet does not give the authority the automatic right to process it for any purpose it chooses. It doesn’t matter if the personal information they are searching for is on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Youtube or even in Google search results, if the public authority went looking for it, it can be classed as processing data. Fair use of personal data will always come down on the side of necessity and proportionality. Both of which were absent from the Met LGBT’s decision to name and shame Mr. X.
This also demonstrates that when it comes to using social media to spread intolerance, spite and threats, nobody does it better than the police service itself.