News Ian O'Doherty

Friday 29 August 2014

Burglars' rights? Not as bizarre as you might think

Published 15/02/2014 | 02:30

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Robert Waters shows off his new website which allows victims of crime to upload CCTV footage of robberies on their homes
Robert Waters shows off his new website which allows victims of crime to upload CCTV footage of robberies on their homes

No matter how liberal, well meaning and generally tolerant we all try to be, there are still some issues that can turn even the most placid soul into a card-carrying member of the hang 'em/flog 'em brigade, complete with metaphorical pitchfork and a flaming torch at the ready.

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It's not a pretty sight, hysteria.

It's corrosive, gets into your soul and diminishes all of us. But no matter how we might try to be guided by the angels of nature, everyone shares a visceral, primal hatred of burglars.

In many ways this is a rather disproportionate reaction – after all, apart from the very occasional big score, such as Michael Flatley's now infamous rhino horn, most of them involve little more than a few quid and your car keys. But money isn't the point. Anybody who has ever been the victim of a break-in, or who even knows someone who has suffered this fate, knows the psychological damage caused by such a personal, intimate invasion of privacy.

Crimes against property are obviously on a lower end of the scale than physical assault, but that's scant consolation to anybody who opened their front door to find their home trashed, their belongings gone, their heirlooms destroyed and, if they're really unlucky, they may find that their unwelcome visitor has used their bed as a toilet.

This has been a hot button for the last decade now, ever since Mayo farmer Padraig Nally shot and killed a burglar in 2004. In the febrile aftermath of that October day, when the incident was hijacked by vested interests and Nally was used as a political football by all sides, one thing became clear – not only were people now prepared to shoot to protect their property, most people understood that decision.

That was a mood that didn't sit well with some, but it reflected the fact that many people, and not just those in isolated country areas, are terrified in their own homes. Forget about the old canard that rising poverty will lead to a rise in break-ins, lots of people are skint but the idea that they would break into someone's home is simply unconscionable.

And then, of course, there's the frustration that the gardaí don't seem to be able to do anything about it. For example, there's a rather prolific burglar targeting an area near my home and the police admit they know who he is, but say they can't do anything about it until they catch him in the act.

Well, I think that's what they say, but I'm not really sure. You see, I didn't actually speak to any hapless cop who admitted impotence in the face of a repeat offender who was just too damn clever for them. But somebody told somebody who told somebody else and then half the neighbourhood was spooked as a result.

That's the visceral impact of the word 'burglar' – it's similar to the reaction we feel when we hear the word 'shark' – an instinctive revulsion and a fury, rightly or wrongly, that so many of them seem to get away with it (the burglars that is, sharks are just doing their thing).

That's why, in this climate, the story of Killiney homeowner, Robert Waters, who has received a warning from the Data Protection Commissioner, is such an interesting one.

Waters installed a CCTV unit in his house that recorded four men ransacking it. He uploaded the images to his website in the hope that they would be identified and brought to book. That seems fair, right? After all, if you're breaking into a house you can't complain if your ugly mug gets splashed all over the web. In fact, let's put the buggers in stocks and throw fruit at them as we run it as a live feed on the website so we can all laugh. Actually, I'm not even joking on that score – I doubt any of us would have a problem with certain types of criminal being named, shamed and publicly humiliated.

However, instead Mr Waters was ordered to take the images down or face a €100,000 fine or jail term.

But as much as we all wish Mr Waters well in his quest to find the people responsible – as, it should be noted, did the Data Protection Commissioner – it turns out that he was completely in the wrong, even if for the right reasons.

Because far from this being an example of Big Brother using a hammer to smash a peanut, the whole point of the Data Protection Act is designed to protect all of us from having our image, or our personal data, being disseminated without our permission. And that's something we all agree with, in theory, right?

After all, since Wikileaks morphed into Snowden, we are now, more than ever, concerned about who has access to our details or images – your face is your digital data passport, after all. And we all want that integrity protected.

So, as it happens, Mr Waters, in doing something we would all have done, has placed himself in potential breach of the law – a potential breach that even the authorities admitted they could understand, but couldn't possibly allow.

Instead, anyone who finds themselves in this situation – and it's something we'll be seeing more of as people become increasingly security conscious – should simply hand the footage over to the authorities and let them do their job. That's all well and good and noble and genuinely important and there's no way anyone can rationally argue against that protection.

But I doubt it comes as much consolation to Mr Waters who, in expressing the fact that: "I've had more sleepless nights over this than the burglary itself." will surely believe that the law is, indeed, an ass.

Irish Independent

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