What laws govern taking photographs of public buildings?

 

With increased tension regarding national security and anti-terrorism, laws now exist in the UK governing the taking of photographs in certain public vicinities. Whilst most public photography is allowed, there are certain offences under legislation.

You can learn more about the background to this legislation by visiting our pages on information and privacy law.

Official Secrets Act

The Official Secrets Act 1911 makes it an offence to take photographs of ‘prohibited places’. Prohibited places include:

  • Defence establishments
  • Telecommunications offices owned by a public telecommunications company
  • Any place in which munitions are stored
  • Places belonging to the Civil Aviation Authority
  • Anywhere declared a prohibited place by the Security of State

One side-effect of this act was that it was not strictly permissible to take pictures of the former Post Office tower in central London, despite it being a highly recognisable landmark.

This restriction was lifted after the tower was taken over by the privatised BT.

Terrorism Act 2000

The legislation that has caused controversy and public outcry more recently is section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The Act created the offence of collecting, making, or possessing a record (which expressly includes a photograph) ‘of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’.

This provision has seen many photographers and members of the public being questioned about the purpose of their photos and/or the nature of their business.

One of the major problems with this offence is that it does not require the individual to have any actual intention that the information or record be used for terrorist activity: all that is required is that the material is ‘likely to be useful’.

Additional guidance

There are other rules and guidelines applicable to other specific public spaces. Public transport stations, airports, and car parks will likely have their own policies. For example, in tube and train stations, passengers can take photographs with small cameras for private purposes, provided no obstruction or inconvenience is caused to staff and/or passengers.

Most other public places such as town centres, public parks (but not Royal Parks), the countryside, public roads and beaches are not affected by these rules.

There are some notable exceptions though; at Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and in Royal Parks, you are allowed to take ‘tourist’ photos, but not revenue-earning or business-related photographs unless you have permission.

So if you have any questions or would like our help in finding local solicitors about any of these provisions please call us on 0800 1777 162 or complete the web-form above.

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