Friday 15 April 2011

Warning - Police Surveillance Is Big Business

This is the second of a couple of posts in advance of the ‘Standing Up To Surveillance’ conference on Sunday.

In January, I idly speculated in a piece for Red Pepper that groups who increasingly challenge economic and corporate interests, like UKUncut, might start to face a far greater degree of police surveillance. Recent comments made by Met Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, on the opportunity to “improve the intelligence picture” offered by the mass arrest of UK Uncut activists last month, seem to indicate that “targeting potential troublemakers” is already starting to receive a higher priority. The crystal ball is working better than I realised.

In the case of those lifted on leaving the occupation of Fortnum & Mason on 26 March, 'improving the intelligence picture' presumably refers to the confiscation and examination of individuals' mobile phones, a reminder that the police are increasingly using highly technological solutions to gather intelligence, as well as their photographers, spotters and plain-clothed officers. And although it may seem strange at a time when senior police officers are warning of cuts in frontline staff, there are big profits to be made by the security & arms corporations that produce and supply the latest software and equipment for direct surveillance, tracking and eavesdropping.

Much of this technology starts life with a focus on countering international terrorism, through a ‘cross-government programme’ run by the Home Office called INSTINCT (Innovative Science and Technology in Counter-Terrorism), designed to invest in private sector research. But through a process of ‘function creep’, what might initially appear to have a solely military or anti-terrorist purpose can soon end up as a serious option for domestic policing. Not everything works out – the use of a surveillance ‘blimp’ developed by a Birmingham company for Greater Manchester Police proved disastrous – but the deployment of the kind of unmanned aerial ‘drone’ used in Afghanistan, provided by MW Power for Merseyside police and equipped with high-resolution cameras instead of weapons, is an obvious example.

However, much of the new surveillance technology is focused on targeting individuals and tracking personal behaviour. There are companies promoting products to Britain’s police forces who are developing software to track mobiles through their GPS information, to hack into wireless networks or to constantly monitor websites and social media, including those that are password-protected. The greater availability of wireless technology means it is possible to make far greater use of temporary video surveillance rather than permanent CCTV and to stream high definition video straight from police vehicles to command centres. The quality of CCTV has been refined though its use for many years at football matches and images are greatly improved, as is the police’s ability to pick out and identify individuals from a greater distance. A number of companies are even developing the capacity for ‘behavioural analytics’ software and 'artificial neural networks' to supposedly recognise and ‘learn’ unusual or suspicious behaviour of individuals in large public spaces.

The surveillance trade is invariably involved in a hard-sell of its ‘cost-effective’ alternatives to both human decision-making and the need for extra officers on duty and claiming overtime. This is likely to seem like an increasingly attractive offer for government and for senior police officers at a time of austerity and budget cuts, but what these products amount to are tools for an ever growing surveillance society.

The idea that targeting potential ‘troublemakers’ means tracking and adding them to a secret database - because it is a cheap option compared to the cost of more public order police - can lead to the idea that ‘improving the intelligence picture’ means adding more and more names, including those with no criminal record or history of violence. Using the excuse of saving even more public money, this can in turn mean routinely arresting people to gain access to their mobile phones and see who they associate with – and then the next steps are tracking those mobiles, monitoring e-mail accounts, using video surveillance and even, in the case of protesters, restricting the movement of activists travelling to demonstrations.

If this seems far-fetched, consider how unlikely it would have seemed only five years ago for the police to start using a version of a military unmanned spy drone - or the likelihood that a British police force working with the country’s largest arms manufacturer would one day suggest that this kind of surveillance technology could be used to tackle such terrifying national security priorities as “theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving”. The slide towards greater surveillance always starts somewhere – and the squeeze on spending might well turn out to signal a new and unwelcome starting point.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Rethinking The Politics Of Kettling

As a way to develop some of my own thinking for the forthcoming ‘Standing Up To Surveillance’ conference on Sunday, this is the first of a couple of posts looking at how protesters’ attitudes toward the policing of their demonstrations are constantly evolving. These ideas aren't fully formed yet so feel free to comment.

An online campaign calling for a ban on kettling seems, on the face of it, like a complete no-brainer for anyone who has attended a major protest in the last two years. The enforced street containment of protesters for long periods and severe restriction on their freedom of movement by the police appears designed to deliberately shut down legitimate dissent and has a marked tendency to increase the likelihood of confrontation.

But here's a question: if kettling WAS actually banned, would the policing of marches and demonstrations suddenly and significantly change for the better?

Containment is, after all, just another way of saying 'control within strict limits' - and rigid control of protest does seem like an essential part of the way all demonstrations are now policed. For instance, we've all seen that efforts to 'kettle the message' - through the control of accurate information on unfolding events, of the way news is reported by the media, by talking up the prospect of violence and planting the odd outrageous claim about ‘ammonia filled lightbulbs’, or simply seeking to dictate the boundaries of what is a ‘reasonable’ right to freedom of assembly and expression – is seen as just as important to the police as containing people and controlling public space. When this control of the message breaks down, as it did with the unusually high level of public scrutiny following 2009's G20 protests (resulting from a combination of public disquiet at Ian Tomlinson’s death, protesters’ own video evidence and eye-witness testimony), we've then seen how desperately keen the police become to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the consequences of their containment tactics.

Let's take the boundaries of what is a ‘reasonable’ as another example. One of the striking features of the recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report "Facilitating Peaceful Protest" is that all its recommendations relate to just one type of street protest - the stewarded march from point X to point Y along a pre-arranged route, sanctioned by the police under prior negotiation.

Now marches are undoubtedly an important part of the popular expression of dissent and only the biggest cynic would argue that the recent, enormous TUC anti-cuts march wasn't a significant achievement. It was, however, far from typical because of its size and the value of the 'point X to point Y' march as a tactic has been diminished by the disillusionment a generation of demonstrators felt after raised expectations of the impact of the huge march against the Iraq war in 2003. In addition, anyone who has attended a number of marches begins to notice that they often feel distinctly like a 'enclosed public space', separate and isolated from the world beyond the lines of police and stewards, with little interaction with the areas that marchers pass through and, commonly, with very little wider media coverage.

Growing disillusionment with 'traditional' marches may in part explain why police contact with protesters is far more likely to be confrontational during protests that, until recently, have been studiously ignored in the establishment debate over public order - protests such as sit-ins, occupations, blockades and spontaneous action that targets economic and corporate interests including banks, carbon traders or businesses that like to avoid their tax responsibilities. These tactics have grown in popularity over the last five years. So are the vast majority of these kind of protesters not also engaged in 'reasonable' dissent, even though they don't ask for prior permission and deliberately avoid attempts by the police to control and contain them? The mass arrest of UK Uncut activists at Fortnum & Mason on 26 March does rather suggest that the police have already made up their minds on this question.

But back to the question of what wider impact, if any, a ban on kettling would have in practice on the general treatment of demonstrators. The way people respond to this probably depends upon whether they feel the police are really trying to facilitate protest or rather to impose 'control within strict limits'. I would argue that the evidence for the latter seems harder and harder to ignore - which makes kettling is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the ideological gulf between the police and direct action / civil disobedience activists over what constitutes 'legitimate' protest.

This Sunday - Standing Up To Surveillance

This Sunday at the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green is a conference that is looking at the way that ‘intelligence’ is gathered by police on political protesters and minority communities - and one of the speakers is yours truly...

A number of the most controversial examples of police surveillance, such as the use of undercover officers to infiltrate pacifist and environmental campaigns or installing ’covert’ cameras to watch the movements of Birmingham’s Muslim population, have been widely reported in the national press. But many others have become routine and systematic. They include photographing people attending demonstrations; demanding names and addresses; ’mapping’ communities, gathering information from universities, mosques and community organisations; and building up a database of protesters and their activities. Intelligence gathering is big business with huge sums to be made by the companies that produce and supply the latest surveillance equipment or analytical software.

What is driving this rapid and seemingly unstoppable descent into a surveillance state? Why are so many of us potential targets for state scrutiny? Is an increasing demand for intelligence driven by a fear of ‘extremism’? Or by the availability of technology and the millions that can be made from it? And what can be done to stop it?

Sunday 17th April
10.30am – 5pm
Rich Mix
35 – 47 Bethnal Green Road
London, E1 6LA

The conference hosted by the Network for Police Monitoring.
More info on the event here

Friday 8 April 2011

UK Uncut Protesters Arrested In Intelligence 'Fishing Trip'?

Now hang on just ONE minute:

Did Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens just come perilously close to admitting that the mass arrest of activists from UK Uncut on 26 March was an intelligence-gathering fishing trip against "sort of anarchist groups" - an opportunity to confiscate and poke around in individuals' mobile phones in the hope that it might "improve the intelligence picture"?

The following is taken from evidence given by Owens on 29 March to the Home Affairs Select Committee investigation on the policing of the TUC's massive anti-cuts demonstration:

Mark Reckless
(Tory MP for Rochester and Strood): "... do you feel there is an issue with the Met’s ability to get intelligence on some of these so-called sort of anarchist groups, and can you see ways in which you may be able to improve that sort of pre-warning intelligence network?"

Lynne Owens: "I think we are seeing a changing face of protest. We have not had protests in London for over five years of the scale that we have seen since the end of last year. We did do, contrary to all the commentary, a fairly significant amount of pre-event work on known groups of people, and indeed a number of arrests were made as part of that process. Do we now need to build on that intelligence picture? Yes, we do. It is why the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities. I think it is interesting, and perhaps somewhat ironic, that we find ourselves in this position where we are being asked questions about intelligence pictures where less than a month ago we were being asked about whether it was proportionate to deploy undercover officers in public protests and public order situations. So I think there is something for the police service about getting the balance right. We do need to improve the intelligence picture, but our ability to arrest over 200 people at the weekend gives us a very good starting point in terms of building that picture.

[emphasis added]

Wanstead Flats - It's All Gone Hybrid

This is a quick update on where we currently stand with plans for a Metropolitan Police Olympics operations base on Wanstead Flats in 2012. Back in January, the Home Office announced that it intended to use secondary legislation to amend the Epping Forest Act 1878 (without Parliament having to pass a new Act) and therefore to remove the legal obstacles facing the plans.

On 22 March the draft Legislative Reform (Epping Forest) Order 2011 was finally published and because it was deemed to have a particular local interest, it was designated ‘a hybrid instrument’, making it both extremely rare and subject to a special procedure in the House of Lords. Residents and organisations who could show they were “specially and directly affected by the proposal” were given a fortnight to ‘petition’ their opposition to the House of Lords Hybrid Instruments Committee. This has meant that a small group of dedicated local people involved in the Save Wanstead Flats campaign has worked incredibly hard over the last two weeks to produce a complex response (PDF) written in the arcane language of parliamentary procedure.

In total there were eight ‘petitions’ lodged against the Legislative Reform Order, including one each from both Newham and Waltham Forest councils. On 18 April, the government will issue its written response to these objections. The Hybrid Instruments Committee will meet in private on 23 May to consider the Order, the petitions and written submissions and may decide to hold a session for oral evidence on 8 June.

Before the Order can take eventually take effect, it will require approval by both Houses of Parliament but in spite of the level of continued opposition, it seems probable that few parliamentarians will be prepared to stand in the way of the Olympic juggernaut. So does that mean the battle is now over? Not quite. Even if the Home Office manages to successfully bulldoze its way past the last of the legal hurdles, Wanstead Flats still belongs to the people of east London and the community campaign to defend the Flats has ensured that every new move made by the Metropolitan police will face intense scrutiny. There is still a year to go before building work can begin and now is definitely not the moment to let our guard down...

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Finally I'm Back - Just About

Finally, after a long six weeks, I am back at work followed the latest operation to fix my shoulder, which was damaged in a serious traffic incident in March 2010.

This has been an incredibly difficult period of recovery - far worse than I imagined back in February - stuck in a uncomfortable shoulder brace (this one to be precise) that was only removed yesterday. It had prevented me from doing many of the things that make life tolerable: cooking, going outdoors in any comfort, taking any proper exercise or being able to write. I also didn't really sleep for the first three weeks until I discovered the benefit of decent sleeping pills, as I've had to keep the damned brace on 24-hours a day. Moreover, once someone has read all the books they can absorb and watched their DVD collection again, all that's left if they live alone and can't go out is spending hours staring at the walls with far too much time to think.

The biggest revelation for me is how self-deluded I've been in assuming that, after 20 years of constantly stepping forward to help friends and acquaintances through one drama after another, the same support would be reciprocated when it was really needed. Instead, for the first time I had a indication of what it might eventually be like to grow old and frail, something that only struck me in the weeks after my 43rd birthday in February. Since my discharge from hospital and not counting work colleagues, only two or three friends made the time to help out (including one I wouldn't have expected) but most were just too busy to even say hello. And you know what? That really hurt. People have such short memories.

All this has changed some of my attitudes, in three ways: firstly, towards the importance of devoting more time to check on people who live alone, are unwell and may need help, even if it's just to offer a chat (it's what I needed most). Secondly, I no longer have any intention of ever finding out what it's like to grow old and frail - I'd rather take the Dignitas option than end up marooned at home for months and years. And finally, I now have a clear idea of the friends I really need to concentrate on - a list that I suspect is far smaller for all of us than the number of vague, rarely-seen contacts we have on FaceBook.

The best thing about losing the awful shoulder brace is that finally I can type with two hands - and with momentous events over the last few weeks, I'll be very glad to get back to regular blogging. More on the aftermath of the TUC ant-cuts march and on Wanstead Flats over the next few days...

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