Throw away the key

A tasty tidbit of appalling news came across my radar this week that has appeared to be somewhat ignored by many. It turns out that residents living in nine different tower blocks in Belfast had no expectation of privacy in their own homes and they didn’t know it. They were never informed that the police force of Northern Ireland (the PSNI) had been given keys to every single one of their flats and could ostensibly enter them whenever they liked. The Housing Executive was quick to say they’d handed over master keys to the PSNI so that they could be used for health or safety emergencies but they only revealed that agreement after some of the residents at the New Lodge Flats accidentally found out about the breach of privacy. The executive most likely would have never mentioned the keys and the police to any of their tenants if not for this accidental slip of the tongue.

It should come as no surprise to find out that the majority of tenants in these towers are of the Nationalist persuasion. Over the last few decades, the police force(s) in the region have been more heavy-handed and covert with these communities than others and this incident is no different. The fact that they could enter the homes of ex-prisoners, activists, and other Republicans with a hidden turn of a secret key is not only a damaging breach of trust but it is also a REALLY murky legal issue, whether they ever used the keys or not. They have done just that “on a minimal number of occasions” according to a spokesperson from the PSNI – who also declined to state what those occasions were.

This is quite a shocking revelation. It’s a horrendous invasion of privacy that residents are rightly angry about. The Housing Executive has promised to change the locks for the tenants, and the PSNI has gone on record saying that they have relinquished the master keys, but again this was after the agreement had come to light. Who knows how long it would have gone on without any change if someone hadn’t told the residents.

This little scandal hasn’t gotten a lot of press so far, which is interesting because it should. Perhaps people with a clean history wouldn’t concern themselves with that kind of open door scenario, but they should. No matter who you are or what you have or have not done, there is an underlying expectation of privacy within your own home and when that is not the case you should know it ahead of time. These people did not and that is not right. What’s also interesting is that the Housing Executive is changing the locks for multiple locations, even when they claim that the police don’t have access to the properties. Given that the lock changes are going to cost the Executive a lot of money, it doesn’t make sense for them to change locks that were never compromised to begin with but they are. It’s either a desperate move to appease angry tenants, or the police had master keys to more locations than those that have been reported. Given that the Housing Executive has thirty-two tower blocks in the North of Ireland, this is more than a little disconcerting.

So dear readers, your public service announcement for the day is to make sure you know who has keys to your house at all times and if you don’t then it’s time to either move or to throw down some of your own money to change your locks. Don’t trust the same people who betrayed you once to not do it again. After all, we all do things in our homes that we may not do in public and that is why we pay the big bucks for them.

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