An amateur photographer whose pictures of government officials ‘destroying’ parakeet nests sparked police action, is unlikely to have breached UK data protection rules, the privacy watchdog has told Amateur Photographer (AP).
Hertfordshire Police has been forced to publicly apologise after officers warned bird enthusiast Simon Richardson that he faced being sued for breach of privacy if his pictures were published in the press.
However, it is far from clear which law the officers were referring to, and why they were called in the first place, as he was reportedly taking pictures of a neighbour?s garden in Borehamwood from a public street.
Richardson, a business analyst who is campaigning to save the parakeet population, told the Mail on Sunday: ?I took pictures from the road, went and did some shopping, and when I came home there was a police car outside my house. About five minutes later there was a knock at the door and there were two police constables.?
One officer reportedly told him he could be sued for ?thousands of pounds for invasion of privacy?.
However, as far as UK privacy law is concerned, it seems clear that anyone suing over the matter would not have much of a case.
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner?s Office (ICO) told Amateur Photographer (AP) that, even if someone pictured destroying nests feared for their own safety upon publication, this would be a ?particularly weak argument?, if the photo were justified to be in the ‘public interest’.
The spokesman explained that journalists are exempt from the ?personal data? element of data protection rules, under Section 32 of the Act.
?There has to be some justification in the public interest… It?s for the organisation of the journalist to justify that exemption.
?If [government staff] were acting in a professional capacity, there is nothing in the Data Protection Act [saying] they can refuse to be filmed.?
Speaking in general terms, the spokesman conceded that there can be a health and safety argument and the ICO treats each incident on a ‘case by case’ basis.
But, he said that a far stronger argument would apply if a person – identifiable in a published photo – were conducting animal testing, for example, because these workers have been shown to be the target of rights activists in the past.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was tight-lipped when contacted by AP, distancing itself from the furore.
?No Defra staff were involved,? a Defra spokesman told AP.
He said the staff photographed were working for the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), on behalf of Defra.
He claimed that ?no threats [for breach of privacy] were made by Fera staff?.
A Fera spokesman said: ‘Fera staff work in close cooperation with the police where they are working in these types of circumstances.
‘They were on premises with the permission of the owner and could see no legitimate reason why they would be being photographed, so took the precaution of informing the police.’
A Hertfordshire police officer with knowledge of the case was not available for comment when contacted by AP.
In an earlier statement, released to the Mail on Sunday, the force apologised for the ?confusion?, saying it had not threatened Richardson with legal action.
Richardson believes that police may have been referring to European human rights legislation, regarding a person?s right to a ?private family life?, but the relevance of this particular law here has not been made clear.
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