It is almost three years since the Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (電腦處理個人資料保護法) was amended and retitled the Personal Information Protection Act (個人資料保護法), and a little over three months since the first part of the act took effect. However, deficiencies in the act continue to pop up at a rate that makes it obvious that it is deeply flawed. Even the Ministry of Justice admitted last year that there were so many problems with the act that it could only be implemented in two parts, as more time was needed to amend it and clarify the confusing bits.
The ministry’s attempts at clarification sometimes only serve to muddy the waters. For example, it has issued a notice stating that police officers are entitled to their privacy and if members of the public want to film them they must first obtain their permission. It added that the law prevents people from commenting on ongoing criminal cases or making recordings at a crime scene during an investigation, although police activities in public places can be recorded by the public if it does not obstruct the police performing their duties.
The ministry’s notice was apparently motivated by an incident in Greater Kaohsiung in September last year, when two students who were stopped and ticketed by police for driving illegally modified scooters filmed the officers during their encounter. The students continued filming even after being warned they needed the officers’ permission to do so, resulting in the pair facing charges of obstructing the police in the performance of their duty.
Since the students involved were in a public place, they should have had the right to film the officers. Did their filming actually impede the officers in issuing tickets? Were the students not simply gathering their own evidence?
The debate over the public’s right to record police officers in the performance of their duties is not new, nor is it unique to Taiwan. Countries and police forces worldwide are having to draft new policies in an age where small digital cameras and cellphone cameras have become commonplace, as has the immediate posting of pictures and videos on the Internet.
It is wrong to interfere with the police in the lawful performance of their duties, but recording or taking photographs alone does not constitute interference.
Nor should police officers have the right to privacy when executing their duties in public; that is why the majority of police forces worldwide require some form of name tag or badge number on uniforms and for plainclothes officers to identify themselves. It is a matter of both identification and accountability.
Even if a law states that permission must be obtained from all parties involved before they can be filmed or recorded, there should be a provision that such consent is necessary only if a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. That expectation does not exist in the case of the police executing duties in public.
The questioning of suspects in police stations is recorded and filmed to protect the rights of the suspects. Many police forces also use dashboard cameras in their patrol cars and officers wear recording devices on their uniforms to collect evidence, provide documentation and deter abuse. A citizen’s right to record police in the conduct of their duties is no less necessary; it is critical to prevent malfeasance.
Being a police officer is a tough and risky job, but police forces exist to ensure the safety of the public. The police are public servants and must be accountable for their actions.
The ministry should immediately clarify its stance on the recording or filming of police activities and the National Police Agency must ensure that every officer understands the rules. If the Personal Information Protection Act has to be amended to legalize such actions, then an amendment should be promptly submitted to the legislature.
This is not a matter that can be left up to an individual officer or bureaucrat’s discretion.