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Terrorism Act 2000

Terrorism isn't a good thing. In the attempt to control such acts our own parliament has rather disgracefully passed the Terrorism Act 2000. I refer here only to that part of the Act which deals with attacks on computer systems.

First, by way of a minor digression, let me refer you to a section of the Explanatory Notes which accompany the Act. These notes now accompany almost every Act and are used to explain in words of one or only a few more syllables what the Act is about. It seems to be a plain English attempt to explain the legalese of the statute. Sadly my own experience of such documents (going as far back as the Children Act 1989) suggests that they can be misleading. It is sadly true that only a relatively small proportion of the population, including for this purpose, journalists, MPs and lawyers, will ever get beyond the notes. The notes are after all prepared by our very best and brightest civil servants, with no political axe to grind. Sadly, one comes to suspect that the opportunity is taken sometimes to use the notes to gloss over some of the more controversial aspects of an Act. If the notes are, after all prepared by the very best and brightest of minds, and they mis-describe, in a most convenient way, provisions well known to the note writer, one must wonder how accidental is the misdescription.

In this case, the edited notes say:

'The Act, as suggested in the consultation document, adopts a wider definition covering actions which might not be violent in themselves but which can, in a modern society, have a devastating impact. These could include interfering with the supply of water or power where life, health or safety may be put at risk. Subsection (2)(e) covers the disrupting of key computer systems. ' (my emphasis added)

Fine you would think - which is what is no doubt intended - but that is very definitely not what the Act says. Section 1 (e) (not 2 (e)) reads:

1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

The definition of terrorism here says nothing about the computer system at issue being a 'key' system at all. It can be any computer system, or any part of a computer system. There is no requirement for any devastating impact in society; the impact is defined purely in terms of and relative to the computer system threatened. That computer system could be anything from a pocket calculator to a government web-site, to, as the notes suggest, an electricity supply network. The section does not mind. If the other sections are satisfied, and if you set out seriously to disrupt its operation (perhaps in the case of the calculator by removing the battery), then the act is a terrorist act. I accept entirely that the additional requirements give some protection, but many possible perfectly legitimate and proper actions can be designed to influence the government for political purposes.

The section does not itself make terrorist actions criminal offence of themselves. That does not mean that it need not be taken seriously. The Act provides some very extensive additional powers and offences in the support of actions against terrorism. These are not to be taken lightly.

The Act was passed after a series of temporary provisions going back to the beginnings of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. Extraordinary levels of terrorist activity, seemed to require extraordinary police powers. The powers went so far beyond those thought proper in a normal society, that they were passed only in sufferance that they would have to be justified anew regularly. The Acts expired and would be renewed only if the situation was so dire as to justify these oppressive powers, these intereferences with proper criminal process. What has happened here, is that despite the overall reduction in immediate need for such powers within the UK, this government has seen fit to make the powers permanent, to extend them in geographical extent, and to extend very considerably the range of activities covered by the provisions.

It would be nice to be able to say that 'Well, of course, these powers would never be used in this way. They would only be used if, as the Explanatory Note author suggests, a 'key installation' was under threat.' Unfortunately, my experience over 25 years rubbing shoulders with police officers investigating crimes at the sharp end, suggests that powers, once given, will be used to just the extent to which the officer can get away with it. After all, if he wasn't meant to use the powers, why give it, and if they were not meant to be used in this way, they could easily have been phrased differently. Acts are not ever applied by 'common sense'. That judgement has nothing to do with th activities of a police officer, since his duty is to do what he is told, and to enforce the law as described by parliament. For those reluctant to believe this, I would refer to a case I was involved with under the Protection from Harrassment Act. This act claimed to be the 'anti-stalker' act. It was passed because of extraordinary cases of people being stalked in one way or another. Extensive powers were granted, and the Home Secretary, no doubt honestly, was optimisti that the powers would be used responsibly and in a common sense manner. I well remember trying to explain that to a police officer who had arrested a client for what can only be described as 'malicious hoovering' The Act which led to his arrest was his choosing to hoover his house at about 6:00am one Saturday morning.

Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
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18 October 2013 http://www.swarb.co.uk/lawb/cpuTerrorAct2000.shtml 460 18 October 2013