Youth imprisoned for not disclosing his computer password: is RIPA a suitable law for a civilised country?
Oliver Drage is 19 years old and a convicted and imprisoned criminal. His crime is that he declined to give the police the password to his computer. He is convicted of no other crime.
This really does raise some difficult issues. When I was 19 – and possibly even today in my, er, more mature years – if the police knocked on my door and demanded access to the content of my computer, I would politely decline. It is my computer and I have broken no laws. But what if they then said, publicly, well we think you have; we think you’re a paedophile and the proof is on your computer? Issue #1: this isn’t the basis of British and natural justice: I am being asked to prove my innocence (by demonstrating a ‘clean’ computer) rather than the police being asked to prove my guilt.
But a paedophile? Well, the public are not going to defend principle against this paedophilia! Issue #2 (and this is a very difficult one) – overall, what is more important: arresting a possible participant in child exploitation (or terrorism or money laundering or disagreeing with the government), or maintaining the principles of human rights and freedoms? Sorry, but my leaning is towards maintaining everyone’s freedom.
There are some reports that Drage claimed to have forgotten the password, and that the Judge simply didn’t believe him. Issue #3: how can you prove you have forgotten something? Judge Heather Lloyd, we are told, said: “This was a deliberate flouting of a court order compounded by your continual denial of guilt.” (I have to say that there are some concerns over this particular report since a RIPA notice is not the same as a court order, and I haven’t been able to find details of the original court case.)
However, remember that Drage’s ‘guilt’ has nothing to do with the police investigation into child exploitation. It is solely to do with Drage’s failure to disclose his password. Let us assume that the facts around issue #3 are, shall we say, a journalistic invention. Be that as it may, if Drage had claimed that subsequent to the removal of the PC but prior to being served with the RIPA notice he had destroyed his only copy of the password and it could now not be recovered, then the burden of proof that he was lying would fall on the authorities – and be difficult to prove. This clearly did not happen; so issue #4 is quite simple: why did Drage’s legal representation not point out this ‘defence’?
Oliver Drage has been imprisoned for failing to disclose his computer password. Nothing else. But the public perception is that he is involved in child sex exploitation. That is a sentence that will remain with him for the rest of his life. Issue #5: if his trial and conviction was for failing to disclose his computer password, where is the relevance of being told that the police were investigating child exploitation?
And finally, issue #6: do you really trust our police, now and in the future, never to abuse this facility? Never to be tempted to go fishing? Frankly, I don’t; nor do I think it fair to expect that of them.
UPDATE: 13 October 2010
An excellent post on the New Statesman blog by lawyer David Allen Green confirms that this is indeed a very troubling case – and for more reasons than I mention. Please read Passwords and prosecutions: The curious case of Oliver Drage.