A man who viewed documents online for a controversial London property development and shared them on social media was raided by police after developers claimed there had been a break-in to their systems.
The raid by four Metropolitan Police constables took place after Southwark campaigner Robert Hutchinson was reportedly accused of illegally entering a password-protected area of a website.
"I was searching in Google and found links to board meeting minutes," he told The Register. "Board reports, none of which were marked confidential. So I have no question that it was in the public domain."
The Southwark News reported that Hutchinson was arrested at 8.20am on 10 June this year at home following allegations made by Leathermarket Community Benefit Society (CBS).
The society is a property development firm that wants to build flats over a children's caged ball court in the south London borough, something Hutchinson "vocally opposes," according to the local paper.
"There's a directory, which you need to enter a password and a username to get into. But documents from that area were being published on Google," explained Hutchinson. "I didn't see a page saying 'this is the directors' area' or anything like that, the documents were just available. They were just linked directly."
Hutchinson shared this screenshot of the Google search results page he clicked from. Click to enlarge
Police said in a statement that Hutchinson was arrested on suspicion of breaking section 1 of Britain's Computer Misuse Act 1990 "between the 17th and 24th February 2021 and had published documents from the website on social media." They added: "He was taken into custody and later released under investigation. Following a review of all available evidence, it was determined no offences had been committed and no further action was taken."
Here the Officers Report (12/01/2021) reveals 100 people on the list will be contacted with guidance on how to submit supporting comments. "Particular emphasis" directed to "those who could be allocated an Elim property" 2/11https://t.co/esaPGdETH3 pic.twitter.com/3KkfUOO9Ui— Save Elim Ballcourt and Garden (@BallcourtGarden) February 24, 2021
It appeared from one set of meeting minutes Hutchinson clicked on that Leathermarket CBS had been urging its tenants to submit supportive comments to Southwark Council's planning department backing its latest development, which he opposes.
Hutchinson said his identification by Leathermarket and subsequent arrest raised questions in his mind, saying police confirmed to him that the company had handed over an access log containing IP addresses: "Now, how that ended up with me being in the frame, I don't know. There's part of this that doesn't add up..."
While the property business did not respond to The Register's request for comment at the time of publication, in a statement given to the Southwark News it said: "When it came to the CBS's attention that confidential information had been accessed and subsequently shared via Twitter, the CBS made a general report of the data breach to the police – who requested a full log of visitor access to the website before deciding whether or not to progress. The police carried out their own independent investigation into who accessed the documents and how, and have now concluded their investigation."
The prepared police statement did not explain whether investigators tested Leathermarket CBS's version of events before arresting the campaigner.
"Surely the Met police cybercrime unit, the first thing they do is check the website for security before they go arresting somebody? Is that not a rational thing to think?" said Hutchinson, who added that the documents disappeared from the company's website (and thus Google) in March – three months before his arrest.
Leathermarket CBS is a Financial Conduct Authority-regulated mutual society and its annual accounts are available on that organisation's website, showing net income of £646,000 (inclusive of £800k in council grants) and funds of £10.7m available to it in 2019, the most recent year available. Those accounts included a list of directors:
Leathermarket Community Benefit Society Ltd's directors for FY2019
Southwark Labour Party, which controls Southwark Council, had not responded to The Register's request for comment at the time of publication.
Had Leathermarket CBS succeeded in convincing police and prosecutors to charge Hutchinson, he is unlikely to have faced prison. Statistics compiled by The Register showed that while Computer Misuse Act conviction rates over the last year soared to 95 per cent of all charged cases, the number of prosecutions fell – and just 16 per cent of those received prison sentences. ®