UK surveillance helicopter police act like paparazzi, tweet then delete celebrity photo

Did the National Police Air Service abuse its surveillance authority by tweeting a picture of UK comedian Michael McIntyre? McIntyre was in public, but was it an invasion of privacy or a breach of data privacy laws?

Met Police helicopter tweet celebrity Michael McIntyre's pic
Credit: NPAS London

After the National Police Air Service (NPAS) in London, which is part of the UK Metropolitan Police Service, tweeted a picture of UK comedian Michael McIntyre, the agency deleted the tweet amidst accusations of abusing its surveillance authority, breaching data privacy laws and invading McIntyre’s privacy.

NPS pic tweet privacy abuse of authority scandal NPAS London

Luckily I had the tweet open and captured a screenshot before it could be deleted; it came to my attention after security writer Graham Cluley tweeted “Met Police helicopter thinks it's ok to violate Michael McIntyre's privacy, and then tweet about it.” After being accused of sounding “anti-police,” Cluley tweeted, “I'm not anti-police, but I don't think it was appropriate. What possible purpose was there to zoom in and then tweet it?”

Some people claim the photo was taken after a helicopter zoomed in on McIntyre, while others report it was “snapped using a surveillance camera outside the Global Radio office in Leicester Square.” The celebrity photo tweet came an hour after NPAS London claimed to be investigating reports that someone stole the top of The Shard of London skyscraper. The cop’s tone seems playful and the photo was clearly in jest since fog or clouds hid the top of the skyscraper.

NPAS London joke about fog enveloped The Shard skyscraper NPAS London

Perhaps the tweet featuring a celebrity was also supposedly to be playful, or engaging to its Twitter audience, but using its surveillance tech in this way stirred up a storm of negative publicity for the helicopter cops.

Image used by NPAS London for Twitter NPAS London

The helicopter's surveillance capabilities reportedly include two cameras, a standard “day camera” and a thermal imaging camera. Wikipedia added, "The cameras are normally connected to controls located in the cabin of the aircraft that allow the air observer to directly control them. They are also linked to a recording system and downlink system. Force helicopters are usually equipped with a powerful 'Nightsun' search light that is capable of illuminating a large area. The Metropolitan Police Service has reportedly been secretly using Cessna aircraft for a number of years that have been fitted with surveillance equipment capable of intercepting mobile phone calls and listening-in on conversations."

It is considered an offense of the UK’s Data Protection Act to distribute personal data of UK citizens without first obtaining consent. The Met did not give McIntyre’s name, so does that mean the cops did not violate DPA? According to Crave Online, “The DPA protects the privacy of UK citizens by ensuring that data pertaining to them isn’t distributed without their consent, with it only allowed to be revealed in a few select circumstances, such as if the individual has committed a crime where the data serves as relevant evidence.”

When it was announced NPAS would close 10 bases over the next two years due to budget cuts, Ch Supt Ian Whitehouse told BBC, “This move will help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the service and mean that every base supports police forces 24 hours a day. It is a move based on an analysis of potential threat, risk and harm to the public we serve.”

The comedian was in public where a person is not supposed to have an expectation of privacy, but tweeting a picture from a surveillance screen does not seem an effective or efficient use of the cop’s time; nor does the invasion of privacy seem to serve the public well. The cops also did not give McIntyre’s location, which some people say adds to the fact that NPAS did not commit a data protection breach.

The Met told the Mirror: “This tweet does not as far as we know constitute a breach of data protection legislation,” but whether it was due to “Twitter’s rent-a-mob outrage” or something else, someone at Scotland Yard made the decision to delete NPAS London’s tweet.

“The photograph of Michael McIntyre by a Police Helicopter, and its publishing online is a gross misuse of police power,” UK Independent politician Gerard Batten told the Mirror. “It isn't some private citizen taking a snap of a passing celebrity, this is the Police, abusing their authority. The implications for civil liberties raised by this are appalling to consider. This isn't Hollywood, this is real life.”

The NPAS tweet was not necessarily meant to be malicious, although The Guardian previously reported the Met police helicopter service has a history of encouraging Twitter abuse to citizens who criticize the agency.

“NPAS is getting a reputation for irresponsible tweeting and, with public concern around the misuse of state surveillance growing, this latest example suggests a blasé attitude to our privacy,” Rachel Robinson, policy officer for Liberty, told the Belfast Telegraph. “This doesn't bode well for those of us concerned about police use of new surveillance technology such as drones. How confident can we really be that our privacy is being taken seriously?”

"At best, posting this image was a complete waste of time. At worst, NPAS seem to have had complete disregard for the surveillance and data protection laws that are there to protect our privacy," Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch, told Huffington Post UK. “You have to question the judgement of the individual who decided to post the image. The lack of responsibility and understanding of individual privacy is concerning. But if you spend all day watching people, individual privacy may slip your mind.”

Carr added:

"We are told that CCTV is there to keep our streets safe, and we are repeatedly told that it is not intruding on our privacy. This image has proven that is not always the case. Hopefully this will provide a lesson for all the other organizations and operators who have the ability to spy on us that the public don’t take kindly on being snooped on.”

A spokesperson for McIntyre told The Independent that “the whole thing was ridiculous. They should be spending their time more wisely.”

NPAS Ground Operations Director Superintendent Richard Watson, said, “We are aware of the tweet and as far as we are aware it does not breach any data protection legislation. We feel however it was inappropriate and it has since been removed. We will be speaking to the person who posted the tweet.”

Do you believe the act of NPAS tweeting McIntyre’s photo was an invasion of privacy, an abuse of police surveillance powers, or just a stupid move? Would you feel differently about the police using its surveillance powers to act like paparazzi if this happened in the US instead of the UK?

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