The heavy hand of Prague police highlights the dangerous hypocrisy of European identity checks

136687_4_mestska_policie_mobilni_stanovisteBy Simon Davies

Throughout the early to mid 2000’s, the then UK Labour government tried to impose a compulsory national ID card on the whole population. No-one had the slightest clue why it was being introduced, least of all the government. The justification swung wildly to the tune of the latest media frenzy, be it illegal immigration, economic efficiency or crime control.

After a bitter and bloody four-year battle with rights advocates, the plan spectacularly failed – in part because people believed that a vast integrated real-time computer ID system creating an endless personal audit trail was simply not safe for freedom. And it would be particularly unsafe in the hands of a government that had trampled on privacy rights to a greater extent than even the current UK government.

At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his ministers accused rights activists such as me of running a groundless scare campaign. According to their rhetoric, the card would never be used against “ordinary, decent, law abiding citizens”.

Czech casinos are places where ordinary people attract the slur of criminality

Czech casinos are places where ordinary people attract the slur of criminality

Apparently we were not only wrong; we were zealots to even suggest that authorities would routinely check the cards just because people carried them.

The government repeatedly pointed out that other EU countries cheerfully carried ID cards, to which we responded that such systems were usually legacies from the Second World War or the communist era. Such measures are unacceptable in Britain, where he right of authorities to demand identity should be strictly circumscribed. If you force ID cards on a population, police will inevitably abuse their power to check them. That is, if you happen to be the wrong colour, in the wrong age demographic or in the wrong place, expect to be checked.

Blair should have spent more time in the Czech Republic capital of Prague. If he had done so, the former Prime Minister may have better understood what we were concerned about.

Observant visitors to Prague may have noticed a disproportionately dense police presence in this peaceful and picturesque city. The central area is reminiscent of places like Brussels and Rome, where the roads are festooned with battalions of over-excited young cops, all eager to show off their toys and their power.

But Prague is a little different. Unlike other cities, there’s a constant sight of people being questioned by groups of police, often for long periods of time. It’s something I’ve rarely seen, even in London, a place where police are traditionally given unofficial free rein to do as they please. Prague locals barely even notice these interrogations. They have become a part of life and are barely visible.

If you happen to be the wrong colour, in the wrong age demographic or in the wrong place, expect to be checked.

I did try to find out what this phenomenon was about by blundering into such a scene in the main railway station and acting like a lost tourist, but was abruptly shooed away by a phone-wielding cop.

“I have no time. Document check,” he stated gruffly as I shuffled away.

A document check. But why? And why with such frequency? My time came around soon enough to explore those questions.

Three weeks ago I was sitting with a colleague in a small Prague casino. I say “casino”, but in reality it was a glorified fruit machine store that cheerfully steals your money in return for a free coke. Still, it was an innocuous enough way to pass the time while waiting for colleagues to arrive in town.

Within a few minutes three police entered the premises and demanded everyone’s identity. The requirement was issued with no concession to civility.“Documents!” without even the courtesy of a “please” (a cliché over which their communist forebears had become famous).

Everyone, including us, handed over passports and national ID cards. In many countries, unlike Britain, the law requires identity documents to be carried at all times. This obligation is taken seriously, to the extent that even enlightened countries such as Germany and Austria will march fare evaders off to the police if they are not carrying documents. The Privacy Surgeon recently filed complaints against four national police authorities over their “identity sweeps” at rail border crossings.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the sense of tension in the casino that night. The place has literally been locked down by police, leaving all of us feeling fragile and apprehensive. The evening had been ruined.

I will describe the following events by way of quotes from my subsequent complaint to the Czech data protection authority.

Our passports were kept by police for between ten and fifteen minutes, during which time it appeared that the document details were phoned in to other officers for checking. The confiscation of the passports meant that we were effectively detained by police, as we would have been unable to freely leave the casino without our identity documents.“

“After the passports had been returned to us, I asked the three police officers for an explanation of their actions. Why were they conducting such a systematic identity sweep? What was the justification? Under which legal instrument was this action conducted? The police were unable or unwilling to answer these questions, and the only justification offered was that “this is common practice in countries in this area”. I asked whether the action was justified by a perceived higher level of criminal presence in casinos, to which one officer replied “but not you; you’re OK”, indicating that a mobile identity check had been conducted.”

The reality is that the police didn’t have a clue why they were conducting identity checks. They actually shrugged their shoulders and had to confer with each other before answering my questions. By their own admission, they conducted checks merely because they were empowered to do so.

Even if there was an argument that people who visit fruit machine emporia are statistically more likely to be illegal residents or criminals, perhaps the same might be said of pubs or discount shoe stores

Even if there was an argument that people who visit fruit machine emporia are statistically more likely to be illegal residents or criminals, perhaps the same might be said of pubs or discount shoe stores.

Before advising “serves you right for being at a casino”, think of Martin Niemoller’s priceless warning “First they came for the socialists…”.

I skirted Niemoller in my complaint to the Czech authority:

“I am concerned that the data processing involved in such systematic and thorough identity checking of casino patrons is neither necessary nor proportionate. There is clearly no probable cause or prior suspicion to justify such actions. I would argue that the interrogation of databases in such circumstances is unfair and unnecessary, even if no record of the action is made.”

I asked the Authority to answer three questions. First, under what legal authority did this action take place? Second, precisely which databases were interrogated (and were these local, national or international or all three) and what data matching took place during the operation? Finally, has any record of this action been made and what transaction data has been retained relating to it.

The data protection authority responded with a confirmation that Municipal Police are given authority to check identity by Act Nr. 553/1991 Coll governing the municipal police. Article 1 (2) of this Act determines the main task of the municipal police – to ensure public order. In order to fulfil this task the police have the right to check the identity of a person. Proving the identity involves checking the person’s name, date of birth, residence and identity number.

This raised the pertinent question of how on earth a random ID check in a peaceful casino has anything whatever to do with maintaining public order. The Authority clarified this issue with the advice: “According to our opinion and based on your information, the Municipal Police has conducted basic casino identity checks in order to exercise its supervision over a place with higher risk of criminal conduct.”

In a worrying disclosure, the Authority added: “The Office for Personal Data Protection does not have the authority to evaluate the necessity and proportionality of such a control.”

This is a dangerous gap in data protection – and one which is evidenced across many parts of Europe. The police get to determine which processing operations are necessary and proportionate. Police oversight authorities aren’t in the slightest bit interested in such matters, while the DPAs are actively precluded from making such an evaluation. If the EU Council had its way, police operations would be entirely removed from the ambit of the impending DP Regulation. In the meantime, countries such as the Czech Republic allow police to Red Line public zones according to their own invisible assessment of normality.

All of which serves to provide a warning to the rest of the world that identity cards aren’t just pieces of plastic; they are the means by which authority can impose its will on innocent civilians.