This is our truth, tell us yours
It was hardly a surprise to many of us. In many Facebook games having more than one Facebook account is an advantage – I have a friend whose dogs have Facebook accounts for precisely that reason. It only matters of course if you’re either a marketting manager wondering why Facebook campaigns don’t produce the results you want, or part of that noisy minority who think the answer to cyber bullying is some kind of verification system.
The Internet is an unreliable place. It has crystallized and made permanent the ways in which we have all learned to have more than one face. Would I want my Facebook account to combine my kinky interests and my professional interests? No. If I were a subscriber to NastyKinkyPigs.Com would I want my fellow subscribers to also know where I worked or which professional bodies I belonged to? Hardly.
And yet there is an obsession with the truth, with completeness that has come alongside the internet era that is doing as much hard as it is good. Want an example? Imagine if you knew a friend was having an extra marital affair, and had died in a car crash. The affair had no causative link to the car crash, and the friend’s partner was unaware of the fact of the affair. You know, because you’re a trusted friend, that there will be two mobile phones in the car; one used for the affair, and one used for work and the unaware partner. You decide to retrieve the affair phone, and destroy it before the grieving partner can find out that she was deceived.
It sounds like the plot of any soap opera, or of a gritty Jimmy McGovern drama set in grim terraces somewhere near Manchester. In fact, it’s taken from real life, and it was the end of the career of a police officer. (Although I’ll not be surprised if it does turn up in a drama somewhere.) Apparently, he had interfered with evidence the coroner required, and was no longer fit to be a police officer, because in a moral maze he made a bad call, and, according to his Chief Constable, he can never be trusted again. Incidentally, this isn’t the place for a paragraph comparing Sgt Neil Salter and Simon Harwood, but anyone who wonders why our criminal justice system is dysfunctional should think about the comparison.
Why the coroner would require the mobile phone and the data off it was never explained. If I die in a car crash tomorrow I don’t think it’s going to be relevant that I have a work mobile and my beer phone. The coroner isn’t going to need to read my text messages. Increasingly though, the coroner’s officer will. We live in a society obsessed with completeness, with following up every piece of data and recording it.
Just as Facebook thinks it can come up with a better proposition to advertisers by collecting more data on its users, so the state appears to think it can produce a better, safer society by accumulating data and using it to enforce the law. The nadir of that approach to law enforcement appears to be playing out in Croydon this weekend, where hundreds of hours of CCTV footage were examined by police before they finally, in their fourth search of her grandmother’s house, found Tia Sharpe’s body.
Policing by data mining probably reached another nadir this week in the acquittal of Simon Walsh. Chris Ashford has written brilliantly about it here, as has Jemima in another demonstration of quality she brings to this blog. One question that has always lurked in the back of my mind has been ‘Why Simon Walsh?’
A police acquaintance explained how they make arrests in porn and obscenity cases. Some, a decreasing number, are Gary Glitter style cases, where the defendant is identified because someone else is given access to their hard disk. Some are based on data from other police services, although Operation Ore remains a startling example of how that can go wrong.
That leaves the cases where the police set out to roll up networks of abusers, leading to much trumpetted cases like this one where police allegedly infiltrated a website / community and used their access to identify and arrest offenders. These cases are less common though than, according to my source, cases where the police arrest one offender via the Gary Glitter method, or similar, and then trawl through his or her Messenger history and email inbox to find more suspects. Which of course, takes us to the case of R vs GS, discussed by ObscenityLawyer here.
We have ended up with a policing system where the police are quite comfortable identifying offenders via data mining and network roll ups, but never actually identifying any harm or any crimes that have been prevented other than the thought crimes they are policing. Incidentally, if you think that imprisoning a man who desires boys and looks at photos of them is going to stop him desiring the, or imagining them, you may be sadly disappointed. If the man is a functioning fantasist, who has working barriers between what he fantasizes about and what he actually does, you may have destroyed his life for nothing other than to demonstrate that, in that most important phrase to modern politicians, something is being done. Just as Neil Salter’s career had to be destroyed to prove to all of us that the police have integrity, so people like Simon Walsh have to have their careers destroyed to prove to us that the government is doing something about extreme porn.
What we have now is a lottery, a game of chance where people who consume ‘extreme porn’ must be prosecuted, apparently at random, pour encourager les autres. With no evidence of a causative link between porn and sex offences (as opposed to the thought crimes of possessing images or words that are criminalized) there is no evidence of harm reduction. All we’re left with is a tangled web of self deception, a society pretending it is doing something useful for fear of admitting to the complexity of the real proble