How The UK's Counter-Terrorism And Security Act Has Made Law Enforcement Into The Literal Grammar Police

from the if-you-sea-something-say-something dept

We've already talked a couple of times about the intersection with the UK's disastrous Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and its intersection with the country's educational system. As part of its effort to weed out terrorists, the UK tasked teachers with keeping a watchful eye on their students to try to identify those that would be radicalized in the future, a concept that sounds like something out of Airstrip One rather than England. Shortly thereafter it was discovered that a software package that teachers had been given to help with this was exploitable in the typically laughable ways. But the tech isn't the only shortfall here. As one would expect when you take a group of people whose profession has in absolutely no way prepared them to act as counter-terrorism psychologists and ask them to be just that, it turns out that the human intelligence portion of this insane equation is off by several integers as well.

Remember a time when someone would harp on you for something you'd written on the internet with spelling or syntax errors? Remember what you called those people? I call them grammar police. It turns out that the UK actually has grammar police.

A simple spelling mistake has led to a 10-year-old Muslim boy being interviewed by British police over suspected links to terrorism. The boy, who lives in Accrington in Lancashire, wrote in his primary school English class that he lived in a “terrorist house”. He meant to write “terraced house”.

His teachers did not realise it was a spelling error and instead reported the boy to the police, in accordance with the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which states that teachers are obliged to alert the authorities to any suspected terrorist behaviour. As a result, the child was interviewed on 7 December by police and the authorities examined a laptop found at his family home.
So, a situation that could have been resolved in thirty seconds with a conversation between the young man and his teacher instead devolved into police activity, with authorities actually traveling to the boy's terraced house to look at a laptop at what they thought might be a terrorist's house. This would be funny if it weren't so frustratingly sad. Keep in mind that this spelling mistake occurred in the child's English class. So, in other words, the very teacher tasked with teaching the boy how to spell properly involved the police in that boy's life because he wasn't spelling properly. One imagines that, assuming this is allowed to continue, the country had better make sure it has only the best and the brightest teaching children how to spell the native language, or else the police can expect to be quite busy.
A cousin of the boy, who has not been named to protect his identity, said his relatives initially thought it was a joke, but that the boy had been traumatised by the experience.

“You can imagine it happening to a 30-year-old man, but not to a young child,” she told the BBC. “If the teacher had any concerns it should have been about his spelling. They shouldn’t be putting a child through this. He’s now scared of writing, using his imagination.”
Let freedom ring, I guess. The freedom from having to think in a common sense manner, at least, as teachers under this law are incentivized into this kind of over-reaction. Putting any class of citizen under this kind of microscope is abhorrent in and of itself, but to do this to children? I had hoped the West was better than this, but now I'm not so sure.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 3:36am

    Never too young

    Well, you know what they say, never too young for a kid to find out just how little 'their' government cares for their rights. /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lisboeta, 22 Jan 2016 @ 3:44am

    Ah but... the police now say this whole furore was not about a spelling mistake. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:00am

      Re:

      Oh come now, what possible reason could they have to lie? It's not like they've gone completely overboard on any 'terrorism' relation stuff in the past, right?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:38am

        Re: Re:

        "It's not like they've gone completely overboard on any 'terrorism' relation stuff in the past, right?"

        Well, they've now gone from locking up the nearest handy Irishman for life for any terrorist act (as they did in the 70s) to rifling through a family home because of a misspelled word on the off-chance one might happen.

        Sadly, this may actually be the improved version of events.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:04am

        Re: Re:

        The boy is a Muslim. Had he been the pure English kid with blue eyes and blond hair things would certainly have taken a much saner approach.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 10:04am

          Re: Re: Re:

          German?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 11:48am

          Re: Re: Re:

          The boy is a Muslim. Had he been the pure English kid with blue eyes and blond hair things would certainly have taken a much saner approach.

          Yep the teacher and the police might have done exactly the same thing - but the press would have ignored it because it doesn't play to the Muslim==victim theme.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:35am

    "So, in other words, the very teacher tasked with teaching the boy how to spell properly involved the police in that boy's life because he wasn't spelling properly. "

    Actually, he apparently spelled the word perfectly. It just wasn't the word he intended to write.

    “You can imagine it happening to a 30-year-old man”

    Not really. I struggle to imagine a situation where an actual terrorist would announce that he lived in a "terrorist house" that wasn't either a joke or a trap to prove how reactionary people are against Muslims.

    However, the link now goes to this:

    https://www.theguardian.com/info/2016/jan/21/removed-article

    and there's a new article that suggests it may now have been an accurate story:

    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jan/21/lancashire-police-criticise-bbc-over-terrorist- house-story

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 3:25pm

      Re:

      Actually, he apparently spelled the word perfectly. It just wasn't the word he intended to write.

      I noticed that too. I guess we now need to start a War On Autocomplete, because that sort of thing is rampant these days.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        The Wanderer (profile), 17 Feb 2016 @ 8:16am

        Re: Re:

        No, I think it's far more likely to be a matter of spellcheck in this case.

        I think he probably wrote "terraced" by ear as "terrist", and took the spellchecker's suggestion of "terrorist" without thinking about it or knowing any better.

        If that's correct, then it [i]is[/i] a matter of misspelling, just not in the way which may seem obvious.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:38am

    I dunno...

    It would be like me writing, "I murdered three children", when I meant to write "I mothered three children". I would think the first version would be cause for concern.

    Then again, this was in a school, and the teacher should've confronted the student first. Don't blame Law Enforcement on this one, blame the teacher.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:52am

      Re: I dunno...

      "I would think the first version would be cause for concern."

      Depends on the context and venue. Lacking anything else of concern, it would be a massive waste of time to investigate you.

      "Don't blame Law Enforcement on this one, blame the teacher."

      Blame everyone. The teacher overreacted, but then the law clearly forces them to report anything remotely suspicious. Police may have overreacted (or not, depending on which version you read), so blame them too along with the culture of fear and discrimination being fostered by them and the gutter press.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Manok, 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:53am

      Re: I dunno...

      Being in primary school, having mothered 3 children would most certainly be of even greater concern than the murder thingie...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Hero, 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:18am

        Re: Re: I dunno...

        You're missing the point. What if it's college instead of primary school? You are in law enforcement, and someone comes up to you and says, "A student of mine has admitted to murdering three children."

        Would you respond with, "lacking any other context, this is not worth my time."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:35am

          Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

          No, because your version omits most of the context, including the fact that the only reason to suspect anything is a misspelled word that would easily have been a spellcheck error.

          Funny how adding context changes "reasonable concern" to "paranoid blithering idiot wasting everyone's time and the resources required for dealing with credible threats", isn't it?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Hero, 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:41am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

            > No, because your version omits most of the context

            Okay, I'll give you that. But still, imagine you're in law enforcement. Someone says, "A student of mine said she murdered three children." (presumably, in the primary school case, the teacher said, "A student of mine said he lives in a terrorist house."), what would you do?

            We're also assuming the essay was typed, not hand-written. I'm not sure if the Guardian article specifies whether or not the essay was typed because it has been taken down pending further investigation.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:54am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

              "Someone says, "A student of mine said she murdered three children... what would you do?"

              Ascertain what the circumstances were that led her to "say" this. There may be procedures and laws that forced my hand, but if the only evidence is a single word in an essay and there's absolutely no other reason to suspect anything, why would I waste my time?

              "We're also assuming the essay was typed, not hand-written"

              Again, context that's missing from both stories. But, I'd consider a single word even less evidence of any potential wrongdoing if it's typed, since it's so easy to write a word you didn't mean to write. Handwritten might be more credible evidence in the case of an adult, but it could also be a case of bad handwriting making it look like a different word - context of the rest of the essay should show you which is more likely.

              A friend wrote "moron" instead of "morning" in a message to a Whatsapp group I'm in this morning. That didn't mean they were actually calling anyone a moron, as was clear from context. The correct reaction to that was to laugh and either ignore it or correct her, not for everyone to launch an investigation as to who she thought was a moron.

              Call me crazy, but I'd rather that finite valuable law enforcement resources be directed toward credible threats, not jumping at shadows.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:17am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

                > Ascertain what the circumstances were that led her to "say" this.

                Yes! And you do that by interviewing the student (student's family, due to the student's age, would've been better), which is exactly what happened in this instance! We're definitely on the same page here.

                > But, I'd consider a single word even less evidence of any potential wrongdoing if it's typed

                I agree, but it's not a single word. "The boy ... wrote in his primary school English class that he lived in a “terrorist house”.

                "he lived in a terrorist house" is the starting context.

                TechDirt has a lot of good content, I just feel that this article is more click-bait than substance.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Hero, 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:20am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

                  Think of it another way.

                  Law Enforcement may have thought that this kid was crying for help, trying to get out of a house that was an unhealthy environment for him.

                  In the end, it's definitely something worth investigating, then when Law Enforcement finds out it's a typo, they can breath a sigh of relief.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • icon
                    PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:53am

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

                    "Law Enforcement may have thought that this kid was crying for help, trying to get out of a house that was an unhealthy environment for him."

                    Except, that's not supported by the follow-up articles or the facts originally reported. Read my link above, there's more to the story than originally reported (TD will probably issue a correction to the above article when they see the updates, as they usually do). Those updates change the story from the scenario you're trying to defend. The actual situation being reported does seem to have warranted some police attention. The one you're defending did not.

                    "In the end, it's definitely something worth investigating"

                    We disagree, for reasons detailed many times above. Given infinite time and resources and equal treatment of children, maybe. The scenario you're defending is clearly removing resources from actual terrorists and abused children, in a situation that the teacher talking to the kid for 2 minutes would have clarified before going "OMG a Muslim said the t word!".

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:40am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

                  "Yes! And you do that by interviewing the student"

                  No, I'd do that by asking first the teacher what happened and what made her contact me. If the reply was that there was a word in an essay, I'd perhaps look at the essay first to see what was said. From that vague description, it's not even clear whether the essay was in the form of fiction or non-fiction, let alone if there's anything else in the essay that supports any suspicion.

                  Perhaps rules would force me to make a quick follow-up house call, but without anything else to be suspicious about, there's little to follow up on once it's confirmed she didn't mean to type that word.

                  What an utter waste of time and resourcesh.

                  ""he lived in a terrorist house" is the starting context"

                  No, that's an out of context phrase. You don't seem to understand what "context" actually means, which is presumably why you'd adamant that valuable time and resources be spent on random words and phrases.

                  "I just feel that this article is more click-bait than substance."

                  Any particular reason why? Nothing you've said supports that claim at all so far.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • identicon
                    Anonymous Hero, 22 Jan 2016 @ 7:05am

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

                    > Any particular reason why? Nothing you've said supports that claim at all so far.

                    I can sum up the story like this:

                    Teacher doesn't realize a typo, reports suspicious activity to Law Enforcement in compliance with a 2015 law.

                    Law Enforcement investigates the situation as required by the law.

                    Law Enforcement figures out it's a typo. Case closed.

                    Sure, the kid might be traumatized, but that's just a side-effect of crazy, paranoid legislation. No one has been made into "the literal grammar police" (that's the click-bait).

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                    • icon
                      PaulT (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 7:20am

                      Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

                      "I can sum up the story like this:"

                      Cool. Omitting the fact that I've already pointed out updated stories that refute this version of events, none of that means that this story is "click bait".

                      "Sure, the kid might be traumatized, but that's just a side-effect of crazy, paranoid legislation."

                      Here, we agree. But the story then is that the legislation caused this overreaction and needs to be corrected. Reporting on that is not click bait.

                      "No one has been made into "the literal grammar police" (that's the click-bait)."

                      Well, except the people who investigated a family on suspicion of terrorist activity with no evidence other than a piece of incorrect grammar (according to that version of the story). No click bait at all, sorry.

                      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 1 Mar 2016 @ 5:40pm

          Re: Re: Re: I dunno...

          Where are the bodies?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:57am

      Re: I dunno...

      Because some adults operate with the knowledge of a ten year old?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:07am

      Re: I dunno...

      Don't blame Law Enforcement on this one, blame the teacher.

      Law enforcement is to blame yes. Even if the teacher acted like a dumbass this wouldn't have escalated if there weren't directives from law enforcement in that regard and even considering such guidelines if somebody had tried to TALK to the boy to see what he meant with that the result could probably had been a slap in the teacher's wrist for his dumbness.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 3:29pm

      Re: I dunno...

      ... "I murdered three children", when I meant to write "I mothered three children". I would think the first version would be cause for concern.

      They might assume you mis-spelled "smothered." Damned sticky keyboard keys!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:50am

    These blokes ran slaves from Africa to the States back in the day. TERRORIST!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:51am

    i can only assume that the teacher wanted some limelight. what else apart from gross stupidity could have urged the teacher to do such a damn ridiculous thing!

    This is the sort of thing read about on the pages here at Techdirt about incidents in schools in the USA. i suppose it had to happen in the UK, considering how it has been trying to join the 'big boys' in the anti-terrorist stakes!

    when a country is run by a megalomaniac anything can happen!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 4:58am

    If you spell something say something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:30am

    Because ... fear.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 5:41am

    Re: Let Freedom Ring

    OK Tim, technically that's *this* country, not the UK.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Éibhear Ó hAnluain, 22 Jan 2016 @ 6:50am

    He lives in a safe house, though?

    As I have said elsewhere...

    "I wonder what would have happened if, describing his loving family, he said he lived in a 'safe-house'"

    BTW: as the teacher was obeying the law, he/she is totally absolved of all legal responsibility. However, should the parents of all the other kids in that trust the teacher any more?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nurlip (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 10:25am

    i am ok with this b/c it will give the US some time to catch up with the rest of the school systems in the world. I hope China and Japan adopt similarly inept policies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 22 Jan 2016 @ 10:41am

    "Terraced" kid

    I'm wondering if it would have changed anything if he'd written "terraced house." Here we have a Muslim kid, who obviously meant to write "terrorist" and misspelled it "terraced"...wouldn't the teacher still call the cops?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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