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Red faces for police over IPTC cock-up

6 November 2005 - EPUK

Lothian and Borders Police had to move quickly to defuse an embarrassing situation after inadvertently revealing the names of photographers whose work they are using to trace individuals involved in the Edinburgh G8 riots in July.

Scottish photographers helping police with their inquiries were this week alarmed to learn that Lothian and Borders Police had inadvertently shopped them to the suspects in a criminal investigation.

The police inquiry arose out of incidents surrounding a tournament organised at Gleneagles Golf Club on July 4 by the PGA – that’s the People’s Golfing Association, not to be confused with the other PGA.PGA Club Committee officials arrived at Gleneagles to find that due to a booking error the club, normally reserved for sporting tournaments, was already occupied by a G8 summit.

The PGA – perhaps surprisingly given the intrinsic nature of golf and its requirement for maximum wide open space and a minimum of nearby buildings and plate glass windows – then attempted to rearrange the tournament in central Edinburgh with predictably destructive consequences. Lothian and Borders police, more used to conflict negotiation at Celtic matches, took a dim view of the golfing extremists, and running clashes, arrests and general mayhem ensued.

Given the proliferation of CCTV cameras in UK city centres and the presence of a large number of police photographers one would have imagined that the police would have access to a comprehensive visual record of this unique sporting event. However Lothian and Borders, in the interests of historical completeness and maximum prosecutions, obtained a total of 25 videotapes of the action from the BBC and Scottish Television and on November 2 published match day highlights

Within minutes of the site going live an awake EPUK member noticed that several of the images contained electronic metadata that identified them as having been supplied by the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scottish Daily Record. Not only that, but they still carried the photographers’ by-lines, an obvious security risk to the individuals concerned. While many of the photographs on the site are taken from CCTV footage or were taken by police photographers, the 31 images – some since removed – also include photographs produced by up to eight press photographers from at least two publications.

After being alerted to the potential problem, Lothian and Borders police took advice from EPUK on how to strip out the metadata, and reposted the images. A clearly embarrassed member of the force’s technical unit admitted, “We certainly didn’t mean to do that.” None of the photographers contacted by EPUK knew that their details had been made publicly available. Said one: “It’s quite alarming to think your details could be being passed around the people who were rioting that day”.

That leaves the question of exactly how the police obtained the images from the newspapers. Considerable publicity surrounded the issuing of warrants against the BBC and STV, but there was no mention of an approach to the print media. Given the risk to the photographers it seems unlikely that highly trained picture desk staff would be so digitally challenged as to simply hand over such images complete with meta tags to the police. We wouldn’t care to speculate exactly who handed over the pictures complete with meta data, but there can’t be very many people at the two papers who aren’t picture desk staff, yet also have access to the photo databases and might be approached by the police from time to time for assistance.

Given the relationships between local press and the police it’s not very hard to imagine a senior officer suggesting – perhaps over a round of golf – that it would be helpful to have any images showing PGA supporters dragging the royal and ancient game into disrepute.

And it’s equally easy to envisage Plod’s golf partner having just enough technical knowledge to forward the images to the police, but not enough common sense to realise that by doing so he could be putting the lives of company employees on the line.

Press photographers working at what are sometimes euphemistically described as “public order events” do so at considerable risk, are often injured and have been killed. One of the most frequent threats they face is the belief by demonstrators, rioters and even golfing enthusiasts that they are “working for the police”.

It’s to be expected that the police will use whatever powers they have to access any images that might help them successfully prosecute individuals they suspect of engaging in criminal activity. It’s also understandable that individual photographers might feel obliged to make such images available, even though in many cases they would be well advised to refuse such requests for a variety of reasons.

But for a third party to simply hand over such images complete with the photographers’ details displays either a mixture of crass stupidity and technical incompetence or an extraordinarily lassez-faire attitude toward the wellbeing of their company colleagues.

Or perhaps some people at the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scottish Daily Record are used to gentler sports than golf.

Bowls perhaps.

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