British cops deliver Catch 22 to photographers: you're not allowed to know which areas you're not allowed to photograph

In Britain, cops have the power to search you if you take a picture of a "sensitive" area, but they won't tell you which areas are "sensitive," because they're so "sensitive."

The British Journal of Photography is trying to use the UK Freedom of Information Act to find out which places in Britain have such precious photons that people who collect them without authorization can have their civil rights violated, but so far they've been unsuccessful.

There's no evidence that terrorists use photographs to plan attacks. Indeed, if disclosing the visible features of notable, iconic buildings puts them in danger, we may as well tear them all down now and get it over with, since the whole point of a notable, iconic building is that everybody knows what they look like.

The Home Office has rejected a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the BJP regarding the disclosure of the list of all areas where police officers are authorised to stop-and-search photographers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000...

While it is common knowledge that the entire City of London [ed: the City of London is a one-square-mile financial district], at the behest of the Metropolitan Police, is covered by the legislation, it remains unclear which other areas in England and Wales have requested the stop-and-search powers...

The request asked for a 'full list of all areas - in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - subject to Section 44 Terrorism Act 2000 authorisations, which the Home Office has a statutory duty to be aware of.'

The request was rejected in late May on grounds of national security. 'In relation to authorisations for England and Wales, I can confirm that the Home Office holds the information that you requested. I am, however, not obliged to disclose it to you,' writes J Fanshaw of the Direct Communications Unit at the Home Office. 'After careful consideration we have decided that this information is exempt from disclosure by virtue of Section 24(1) and Section 31(1)(a-c) of the Freedom of Information Act...'

As part of its ongoing campaign for photographers' rights, BJP has appealed the decision, requesting an internal review of the request's handling. It has also filed 46 additional Freedom of Information Act requests to all Chief Constables in England and Wales, asking them to disclose whether they have asked for stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

All quiet on the Westminster front (via Memex 1.1)


  1. “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to tell you if I’m allowed to take photographs in restricted areas.”

    Sure, you get arrested, but everyone loves a smart-aleck, right? Right?

  2. It’s nice to see that UK journalists can’t make the distinction between Greater London and the City of London, yet a Canadian, albeit one living in the UK, blogging about the article can pick up on it…

  3. This might just be 3 am and three beers talking, but WTF? I’m shnockered and that statement makes no freakin’ sense to me. Couoldn’t they at least come up with a better BS explanation like our government does for ufoS? “NO YOU CAN’T TAKE PICTURES HERE BECAUSE OF SWAMP GAS! YOUR CAMERA MIGHT EXPLODE!”
    I unno…they’re just being lazy with covering up this kinhda crap now.

  4. @Takuan: That doesn’t work. The act makes the hassling legal in some places, and illegal in others – they just won’t tell you where, making it de facto legal everywhere.


    When my parents were showing me travel photos from a trip around Europe they took in the 70s, they showed a few photos taken in Belgrade. However, my father pointed out that he had to be careful about which buildings you photographed, as photographing government buildings could get you arrested by the not-very-friendly local police.

    I’m quite sure they had no such thing in London at the time, even though the IRA bombing campaign was in full swing. It’s really sad to see the UK going the way of totalitarian communist/socialist states of yesteryear.

  5. Simple solution:

    Get disposable cameras.

    Walk around London/UK snapping photographs conspicuously.

    Wait for polizei intervention.

    Allow them to take cameras, post incident on aggregation website.

  6. and if they charge you with divulging state secrets, accumulate and publish the NO-hassle zones – which of course defines the hassle zones too. Put them in the position of forbidding all discussion of photography.

  7. “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia”

    What if a Cop takes a picture?

    What caste do photographers fall under in London?

  8. The same catch 22 in Australia. We can’t host web sites with ‘links’ to ‘banned’ web sites, but the Government won’t tell us which sites are ‘banned’.

  9. Kieran, my family and I visited the British Isles in the 70’s, and my father took copious photos everywhere we went. No hassling.

  10. @ TAKUAN:

    Considering the police will use this situation as an excuse to hassle you wherever they choose, you will end up with a map of locations patrolled by overzealous constables on powertrips, rather than a map of super-secret buildings.

    I suppose, probally still a useful map.

    I would love to know how many of these ‘no-photograph’ locations are on the old Google street-view.

  11. the map will be public. Think of public opinion as the forbidden zone gets larger and larger. You could also put up signs: “Forbidden!”

    This is a PR battle, the general public has to feel the vice tightening and get angry.

  12. Hmm.

    A simple search of Google Earth / Street View and most of the ‘banned’ locations are there. It is no secret and the detail is magnificent. You can even see the names on door locks etc.

    If something is in the public domain, how can it be secret. As a relevant point, a digital camera is classified as a “computing device”. It is covered by legislation preventing unauthorised access/abuse etc. This includes the deletion of content (which anyone with even the most basic of computer knowledge can retrieve anyway). Can someone clarify the EXACT law re this?

    The alternative is to use a phone camera with a click and transmit option to post to a blog or web site.

    The REAL issue here though is the abuse and obfuscation of the law, truth, and the rights of an individual under British law.

  13. The real problem of course is that British policemen have forgotten they are citizens, first and foremost, and not an arm of Government. While they behave as though they were an arm of the Executive, public confidence in them will remain low.

  14. A few years back (post 911) I was innocently driving around Denver taking photos with two old film cameras and accidentally started walking around the grounds of the the Denver mint snapping away, only to suddenly be approached from all directions by (big) federal cops. They asked to see my photos and I told them that I was not using a digital camera. I was mostly silent, but they said its not illegal to take the photos I was taking, that I may carry on, but that they just wanted to ‘check me out’ which they did. They kindly gave me back my ID and I said that I’d rather be on my way.

    I know I was an idiot for not knowing what that building actually was, but it honestly looked really cool!

  15. Is the stop-and-search a full search?

    I have to wonder what would happen if someone packed their pockets/bag with “weird” things (rubber chickens? vibrators? glass eyes?) and then walked around taking pictures. If someone else managed to covertly film the resulting search it could be priceless.

  16. From my experience, the Met police are despicable demi-humans, yet the City of London police are actually quite decent and reasonable people.

  17. Like someone else suggested earlier, I’d deploy photgraphers around the country with cameras with no film inside, and record locations where they are hasseled. Extra points for putting a towel on their heads and saying “Durka-durka” a lot.

    Cory – seriously, there is no proof that terrorists use photographs in planning terrorist attacks?! what do you imagine they do, draw sketches or paint word pictures to describe their targets?

    I’m on my cellphone, so searching for supporting evidence is left for the reader, but I believe they have caught folks planning terrorist attacks in the US with pictures of their intended targets, I have to believe that Timothy McVeigh had a picture or two of the Murrow building marked “Before”.

    I think your zeal to denounce this wrong from every possible angle caused you to include this non-sensical statement. If nothing else, I assume photos would be used to determine the most effective placement of a device (since blueprints are likely right out), and for clearly communicating device placement to the person placing the device… Do you have any good reason to suspect otherwise?

  18. I can envision a future art exhibition, pictures of forbidden areas, with added details of the uber secret facilities hidden within.. (think James Bond villan lair and lots of evil white cats)

  19. Anyone else suddenly have the name ‘Kafka’ pop into their head after reading this? Seriously, the UK is a step or two away from putting on the real life version of ‘The Trial’.

  20. Another prime example of gov taking away the rights of a “Free press”. The sad part is they have trained the public to think the “press” is bad, so the public oppose radio, tv, print, etc when things like this happen.

  21. Occam says: there is no list. It’s a question of “discretion” – in other words, they just make it up as they go along.

    I mean – the entire City of London is a “sensitive” area? Bonkers.

  22. Perhaps someone could tap the kinetic output of George Orwell, spinning in his grave like a lathe.

  23. Pretty soon they’ll forbid even looking at sensitive areas. So the police will start harassing people just because they’re not blind.

  24. Yeah sounds like they’re simply giving themselves carte blanche to harass anyone they choose as long as tey have a device that can take picutres (which with cell phones means almost anyone)

    Between google maps and flickr everything’s been covered long ago anyway.

  25. If I was planning to blow somewhere up I would not stand in front of it brazenly snapping away and getting myself noticed and probably stopped. That’s hardly the mark of a competent subversive activist. Surely they would just put a digicam in a bag, like every ‘undercover reporter’ has for the last 15 years.

  26. There’s a simple way to put a stop to this crap…somehow convince all movie and TV studios to agree to stop filming anything in London
    “for fear of violating the law”. The potential loss of income might actually bring them to their senses.

  27. I was in the UK in 1998. Our hotel was near Victoria Station. The first thing I noticed was that there were no trash cans anywhere. Every few minutes custodians sweep up using wide brooms. This was in response to the IRA and their bombs.
    In the US the postal box is a vanishing landmark, especially in front of public buildings.
    At one large radio station in San Francisco I was part of the local bomb squad. When we got a threat we’d be notified and inspect our work areas. I had the tast of taking a ladder to pop up the ceiling tiles in the john and also check the trash containers.
    Eventually a bomb went off in the building but it targeted the Iranian counsel’s office back in the days of the Shah.
    Frankly you could do a lot to building designs to make them less susceptable to terrorism.

  28. Good thing they’ve just come out with SD cards with Wi-Fi. Snap away, send your pictures immediately, let the police stop you all they want.

    I hope somebody gets stopped who is brave enough to actually demand to see that the place he shot was on the list. Preferably in court. Otherwise, this is tantamount to a secret law.

  29. Anyone feel the ghost of Douglas Adams chortling at all this? “In a sub-basement, behind a locked door with a sign saying ‘Beware of the Leopard!'” While ignorance of the law may be no excuse, the flip side is that the law must be accessible, not arbitrary.

  30. Gilbert Anonymous here:

    I have the perfect solution to idiots trying to stop photographers. Two words: Flash mob. Use cell phones and texting to organize a mass photo party. Let’em try to deal with that!!

  31. anwaya commented:

    I mean – the entire City of London is a “sensitive” area?

    The entire City of London is just over one square mile – 1% the size of Washington D.C. (which is defined as ten miles square in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, section 8) – while excessive, it is far less ground than we normally think of when we speak of “London”

  32. @Timmothy Hutton:

    I see that my earlier comment was ambiguous.

    I was born in Camden Town and lived there for thirty years. I know about the size of the city. it’s the strategic and symbolic irrelevance of so much of the square mile that makes me scornful of this absurdity. Ten square miles or one, the measure is not about security, it’s about suppression.

    1. Is there a square inch of the City of London that hasn’t been photographed already and published somewhere? Maybe it’s time to abolish postcards because, you know, they could be used for reconnaissance purposes.

  33. yep, like airport shoe-fetishists and shampoo thieves, it’s all about teaching the slaves their place. The genius was in using other slaves to do the oppressing. I propose the revival of “capo” as a term of daily use. From the the death camps, “capos” were inmates permitted to live a little longer for assisting in the murder of other inmates.
    Let the Met Police, TSA workers and similar all be referred to by free men as “capos”, use the word, make it stick, spit when you say it. Public shaming is one of the few non-violent weapons left.

    That is the idea though, they hope to eventually provoke violence so they can justify a real prison lock-down.

  34. I just created a Platial map where anybody who has been stopped and searched under section 44 can add some details of where they were, what they were doing, and when they were stopped.

    Yes, I know that this does not confirm whether a place or area is actually restricted or if a police officer was just having a bad day and wanted to share that with somebody.

  35. the “Cell Phone Salute”? Standing with phone at arms length, slowly rotating. Everyone doing it, everywhere. Taking photographs? Or trying for the best signal? Or just trying to focus on the screen? They’d have to check every time. How many cops? How many citizens with cell phones? How many hours in a day?

  36. great work there #38! Looks easy to use and zooms nicely. Since you can be executed for taking a picture of an actual cop (capo?…copo?) how about tagging each hassle-incident with the badge number? Or are badge numbers state secrets too?

    There’s an idea; signs in “restricted areas”: “Unlike Communist China, Photography of this Building is Forbidden Here”

  37. Takuan @ 41: Banksy street signs! Circular, white background, red boundary, iconic SLR in black with a diagonal red slash. “Photographers will be prosecuted – Video surveillance in progress.” “CAUTION: EXCESSIVE LOOKING IS A CRIME.”

  38. Since looking at a sensitive area long enough and then running away to sketch it from memory is basically the same as taking a photo, it seems obvious that all inhabitants and visitors to London should be blinded so that we may all safely enjoy living in a free society.

  39. I find it hard to believe the nation that brought us John Cleese couldn’t mock these idiot regulations to death in a week if they only applied themselves.

  40. I’m curious to know how they react to people who sketch instead of taking photos. I’ve been called over by security in airports once or twice but only because they wanted a better look :)

  41. What the hell, Britain. This is not law, this is oppression. Rule number 1 of rulemaking: supply to those bound by a rule information about that rule. Not doing so cannot be justified in any situation.

  42. Maybe it’s just my pessimistic German nature, but everyone seems to give the police Gestapo-like powers these days.

  43. You should ask them for a list of places which you are allowed to take photos then. There’s no danger in releasing that is there ;)

  44. everyones outrage is operating on the assumption that the goal of these programs is to prevent terrorism. it should be obvious from 10,000 meters that this is not the case.

    this is part of a class of laws to give the state a pretense for control. it should be even more obvious given recent revelations of corruption in parliament and scotland yard what the motivator is for this. sadly, if history is to teach us anything, it is that things will slide into hell before enough people stand up and say “enough!” and the whole thing starts over again.

    the sleep walking is over, Britain is a police state now.

  45. Had I read this story outside the context of a news item, I would have thought it to be a part of a script for a sequel to “Brasil”.

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