Suspicious behaviour on the tube (London Underground)

This article is from the British newspaper The Guardian. It looks at the impact of increased security on the London Underground train system (also known as the tube) in the wake of the July 7 2005 terrorist attacks on the tube system. The original article can be found at,,1575411,00.html.

Suspicious behaviour on the tube

By David Mery

The Guardian

Thursday September 22 2005

A London underground station was evacuated and part of a main east-west line closed in a security alert on Thursday, three weeks after suicide bombers killed 52 people on the transport network, police said. (Reuters)

This Reuters story was written while the police were detaining me in Southwark tube station and the bomb squad was checking my rucksack. When they were through, the two explosive specialists walked out of the tube station smiling and commenting: Nice laptop. The officers offered apologies on behalf of the Metropolitan police. Then they arrested me.

7.10 pm: From my workplace in Southwark, south London, I arrange by text message to meet my girlfriend at Hanover Square. To save time — as I suppose — I decide to take the tube to Bond Street instead of my usual bus. I am wearing greenish Merrell shoes, black trousers, T-shirt, black Gap jumper, light rainproof Schott jacket and grey Top Shop cap. I am carrying a black rucksack I use as a workbag.

7.21 pm: I enter Southwark tube station, passing uniformed police by the entrance, and more police beyond the gate. I walk down to the platform, peering down at the steps as, thanks to a small eye infection, I’m wearing specs instead of my usual contact lenses. The next train is scheduled to arrive in a few minutes. As other people drift on to the platform, I sit down against the wall with my rucksack still on my back. I check for messages on my phone, then take out a printout of an article about Wikipedia from inside my jacket and begin to read.

The train enters the station. Uniformed police officers appear on the platform and surround me. They must immediately notice my French accent, still strong after living more than 12 years in London.

They handcuff me, hands behind my back, and take my rucksack out of my sight. They explain that this is for my safety, and that they are acting under the authority of the Terrorism Act. I am told that I am being stopped and searched because:

  • they found my behaviour suspicious from direct observation and then from watching me on the CCTV system;
  • I went into the station without looking at the police officers at the entrance or by the gates;
  • two other men entered the station at about the same time as me;
  • I am wearing a jacket too warm for the season;
  • I am carrying a bulky rucksack, and kept my rucksack with me at all times;
  • I looked at people coming on the platform;
  • I played with my phone and then took a paper from inside my jacket.

They empty the contents of my pockets into two of their helmets, and search me, and loosen my belt. One or two trains arrive and depart, with people getting on and off. Then another train arrives and moves slowly through the station. The driver is told not to stop. After that, no more trains pass through the station.

We move away from the platform into the emergency staircase. I sit down on the (dirty) steps. The police say they can’t validate my address. I suggest they ask the security guard where I work, two streets away. We go up to the station doors, and I realise that the station is cordoned off. Two bomb squad officers pass by. One turns to me and says in a joking tone: Nice laptop! A police officer apologises on behalf of the Metropolitan police, and explains that we are waiting for a more senior officer to express further apologies. They take off the handcuffs and start giving me back my possessions: my purse, keys, some papers. Another police officer says that this is not proper. I am handcuffed again. A police van arrives and I am told that I will wait in the back. After about five minutes, a police officer formally arrests me.

8.53pm Arrested for suspicious behaviour and public nuisance, I am driven to Walworth police station. I am given a form about my rights. I make one correction to the police statement describing my detention: no train passed before I was stopped. I empty my pockets of the few things they had given me back at the tube station, and am searched again. My possessions are put in evidence bags. They take Polaroid photographs of me. A police officer fingerprints me and takes DNA swabs from each side of my mouth.

10:06pm I am allowed a call to my girlfriend. She is crying and keeps repeating: I thought you were injured or had an accident, where were you, why didn’t you call me back? I explain I’m in a police station, my phone was taken and the police wouldn’t allow me to call. She wants to come to the station. I ask her to stay at home as I don’t know how long it will take.

10:30pm I am put into an individual police cell. A plainclothes officer tells me my flat will be searched under the Terrorism Act. I request that my girlfriend be called beforehand, so that she won’t be too scared. I am asked for her phone number. I don’t know it — it is stored in my phone — so I explain it is with the officer at the desk. I later find out that they don’t call her.

12:25-1:26 am Three uniformed police officers search my flat and interview my girlfriend. They take away several mobile phones, an old IBM laptop, a BeBox tower computer (an obsolete kind of PC from the mid-1990s), a handheld GPS receiver (positioning device with maps, very useful when walking), a frequency counter (picked it up at a radio amateur junk fair because it looked interesting), a radio scanner (receives short wave radio stations), a blue RS232C breakout box (a tool I used to use when reviewing modems for computer magazines), some cables, a computer security conference leaflet, envelopes with addresses, maps of Prague and London Heathrow, some business cards, and some photographs I took for the 50 years of the Association of Computing Machinery conference. This list is from my girlfriend’s memory, or what we have noticed is missing since.

3.20am I am interviewed by a plainclothes officer. The police again read out their version of events. I make two corrections: pointing out that no train passed between my arrival on the platform and when I was detained, and that I didn’t take any wire out of my pocket. The officer suggests the computer cables I had in my rucksack could have been confused for wires. I tell him I didn’t take my rucksack off until asked by police so this is impossible. Three items I was carrying seem to be of particular interest to the officer: a small promotional booklet I got at the Screen on the Green cinema during the screening of The Assassination of Richard Nixon: a folded A4 page where I did some doodles (the police suspect it could be a map); and the active part of an old work pass where one can see the induction loop and one integrated circuit. Items from the flat the police officer asks about: the RS232C breakout box, the radio scanner and the frequency counter.

The officer explains what made them change their mind and arrest me. Apparently, on August 4, 2004, there was a firearms incident at the company where I work. The next day I find out that there had been a hoax call the previous year, apparently from a temp claiming there was an armed intruder. Some staff had also been seen photographing tube stations with a camera phone. On June 2, as part of a team-building exercise, new colleagues were supposed to photograph landmarks and try to get a picture of themselves with a policeman.

4:30am The interviewing officer releases me on bail, without requiring security. He gives me back most of the contents of my pockets, including my Oyster card and iPod, and some things from my rucksack. He says he will keep my phone. I ask if I can have the SIM card? He says no, that’s what they need, but lets me keep the whole phone. On August 31 I arrive at the police station at 9 am as required by bail, with my solicitor. A plainclothes police officer tells us they are dropping the charges, and briefly apologises. The officer in charge of the case is away so the process of clearing up my case is suspended until he signs the papers cancelling the bail and authorising the release of my possessions. The meeting lasts about five minutes.

I send letters to the data protection registrars of London Underground, Transport for London, the British Transport police and the Metropolitan police. The first three letters ask for any data, including CCTV footage, related to the incident on July 28, while the final one asks for any data they have on me. They all have 40 days to respond. On September 8 I talk to my solicitor about ensuring the police return all my possessions, giving us all the inquiry documents (which they may or may not do) and expunging police records (apparently unlikely to happen). The solicitor sends a letter to the officer in charge of my case conveying to him how upset I am.

I write to my MP about my concerns. The police decided that wearing a rain jacket, carrying a rucksack with a laptop inside, looking down at the steps while going into a tube station and checking your phone for messages just ticked too many boxes on their checklist and makes you a terrorist suspect. How many other people are not only wrongly detained but wrongly arrested every week in similar circumstances? And how many of them are also computer and telecoms enthusiasts, fitting the police’s terrorist profile so well?

While a police officer did state that my rain jacket was too warm for the season, could it have been instead that the weather was too cold for the season? The day before had been the coldest July day for 25 years.

Under current laws the police are not only entitled to keep my fingerprints and DNA samples, but according to my solicitor, they are also entitled to hold on to what they gather during their investigation: notepads of arresting officers, photographs, interviewing tapes and any other documents they entered in the police national computer (PNC). So even though the police consider me innocent there will remain some mention (what exactly?) in the PNC and, if they fully share their information with Interpol, in other police databases around the world as well. Isn’t a state that keeps files on innocent persons a police state? This erosion of our fundamental liberties should be of concern to us all. All men are suspect, but some men are more suspect than others (with apologies to George Orwell).

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