Thursday 27 June 2013

How To Find Out What Secret Police Surveillance Says About You

On the face of it, this might seem like a very niche post. I've put this together primarily for activists involved in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) and police custody deaths campaigners (including individual families and people at INQUEST) who may have been targeted for undercover surveillance revealed by the Guardian this week. It's based on my own Subject Access Request to the Metropolitan Police, submitted on Tuesday.

However, the steps below are just as applicable to anyone wanting to find out what personal details are held about them by the police, for example on the National Domestic Extremism database. There is a 2011 guide on the Guardian website - note that some details (such as who to make payment to) have since changed.

Why make a request?

The revelation that undercover surveillance by the Special Demonstration Squad during the 1990s targeted the Lawrence family, police custody death campaigners and organisations that supported them - people involved in lawful campaigning activities - is alarming but incomplete. The Guardian's report doesn't name of the SDS officer who targeted NMP and we have no idea how widespread the surveillance was or what was included in the so-called 'intelligence' reports.

The Metropolitan Police are likely to resist calls for the release of this information, but a flood of Data Protection Act Subject Access Requests will at least force the Met to examine their records and confirm or deny whether information was gathered. They could potentially help everyone to understand whether, as I suspect, the 'intelligence' was nothing more than gossip and rumour designed to smear campaigners.

As the process involves handing over a certain amount of personal information (including your address and your date and place of birth), it is only worthwhile submitting a Subject Access Request if you think there is a chance that your details are held on police records. There is no point feeding the surveillance officers with information they don't already possess.

Writing a Subject Access Request

First, download MPS Subject Access Form 3019 - there is a Microsoft Word version or a PDF on the Metropolitan Police website.

After completing the personal information sections, Section 3 asks:

Please specify exactly what information you require (e.g. Crime Report)?

I have written:
I require any information about myself gathered by the former Special Demonstration Squad and subsequently by the National Domestic Extremism Unit.
In response to the question "What happened to cause you to have contact with the police?", I have added:
Recent news coverage has indicated that undercover officers from the Special Demonstration Squad were responsible for covert surveillance on a number of groups including the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) and justice campaigns concerned with deaths in police custody. As I have been actively involved in NMP since 1990 and was the secretary from 1997 of the United Families and Friends Campaign, the umbrella group for many of these campaigns, I wish to find out whether this undercover surveillance gathered information on me.
This is obviously personal to me. If you were involved in what the Guardian refers to as "associated groups", such as a family campaign, INQUEST or another organisations, then you need to add you own concerns why the SDS may have included you in its nefarious activities.

Under "When did this happen?" I have said:
Potentially between 1990 and 2008 for the former Special Demonstration Squad and from 2008 until the present date for the National Domestic Extremism Unit
The National Domestic Extremism Unit took over the work of the Special Demonstration Squad in 2008. If, like me, you are still a campaigner, then it is worth finding out whether there is any more recent 'intelligence' about you.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe may have told the London Assembly today that "we are now in a different context... the main reassurance I can offer you is that we are aware it has been alleged in the past, I don't want it to happen in the future... and I don't believe it is happening at the moment." However, if the National Domestic Extremism Unit is prepared to gather data on an 88-year-old man sitting in a folding chair drawing sketches at demonstrations, then it is capable of anything.

In response to the question "Where did this happen and how was it reported?", I've have said:
Unknown – the alleged covert surveillance most likely took place in the London borough of Newham but potentially could have happened anywhere in London.

Again, this will need amending, depending on your individual circumstances.

Submitting your Subject Access Request

You need to send a cheque, British postal order or international bankers draft for £10 payable to 'Mayors Office for Policing and Crime' and two forms of identification that "provide sufficient information to prove your name, date of birth, current address and signature." This means a driving licence, medical card, birth/adoption certificate or passport, along with a recent utility bill or bank statement.

I sent a copy of my passport and a photocopy of a gas bill - both a bank statement and definitely a telephone bill seemed like a really bad idea!

The form, payment and identification should be sent to:

Metropolitan Police Service
Public Access Office
PO Box 57192

Don;t forget to keep a copy. If you do not receive confirmation that the data protection officer has received your request within two weeks, ring the Public Access Office on 020 7161 3500 and ask to speak to the data protection unit, or email

What happens next?

You are entitled under the Data Protection Act to receive an answer within 40 days but no-one, it seems, ever receives a response in that time. The Metropolitan Police is so bad at responding to requests for information that in April, it was one of three public authorities the Information Commissioner’s Office said it planned to monitor over concerns about its timeliness.

The Met may decide to withhold information, but it must clearly explain why. As the activities of the SDS relate to historic surveillance of lawful campaigning, it will be interesting to see what excuses they come up with.

You can challenge any denial of information by lodging an appeal, and asking the department to reconsider the decision. The Network for Police Monitoring (which Newham Monitoring Project is a member of)  is currently putting together guidance on following up Subject Access Requests and when it is ready, I'll make this available.


Thanks to Emily for this: a Freedom of Information request from last year confirms that Special Demonstration Squad data "was amalgamated into a MPS system and is not held in a standalone searchable database". This is likely to cause delays but does suggest that the data exists and was kept.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

We Must Have A Far-Reaching Inquiry Into Police Spying

This is a piece I wrote for Red Pepper on today's revelations that undercover police spied on Newham Monitoring Project and campaigns for justice for those that died custody

Today’s new development in the long-running exposure of undercover police targeting campaigners has suddenly became very personal. The Guardian reported that covert officers from the former Special Demonstration Squad had spied on a number of organisations concerned with corruption and harassment within the Metropolitan Police, including the east London community group Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), and on justice campaigns for people who had died in custody. I have been an activist for NMP for 23 years and from 1997 to 2007 was the secretary of the United Families and Friends Campaign, an umbrella group of custody death families. It seems likely my name appeared in some of the secret so-called ‘intelligence’ reports.

I’m disturbed that NMP was targeted but not entirely shocked. In some ways it might be seen as a positive reflection on our effectiveness in exposing cases of police misconduct and how worried senior officers had become about the damage that the actions of some of their officers was inflicting on the Met's reputation. I certainly know the police have never been able to get their heads around what motivates independent grassroots activism: how campaigns emerge from practical casework rather than, say, an attempt to recruit people to a party and how supporting individuals and families suffering injustice makes the anger that drives a desire for answers feel very personal.

Furthermore, the fact that a decision was made to spy on an organisation whose events were open to the public and whose activities were reported in great detail in our annual reports and publicity says more about the Metropolitan police than it does about NMP: it illustrates the deep level of resistance to accountability within London’s police during the period when the Special Demonstration Squad were snooping around our activities.

However, I’m appalled and angry too, that campaigns NMP advised and supported that were set up and sustained by bereaved families struggling for justice for their loved ones after a death in police custody – always in the face of overwhelming hostility from every part of the criminal justice system – may have been targeted for covert surveillance, for no other reason than to try and undermine them. I can only imagine that, in the absence of any actual ‘plotting’ by these campaigns, undercover officers were simply busy trying to find out more about families' legal strategies or looking for gossip and rumour that they could use to smear ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances by grief and the need to find the truth.

On top of the allegations of serious sexual misconduct and betrayal by undercover police and the stories of identities stolen from dead babies, the shameful targeting of the bereaved now means the case for an independent public inquiry is overwhelming. The Home Secretary’s insistence that the current investigation by Derbyshire’s Chief Constable is adequate lacks any credibility. We need a far-reaching and robust inquiry to find out what so-called ‘intelligence’ was gathered by officers, who ordered the surveillance and how it was used. Just as importantly, we urgently need to know to what extent the successors to the Special Demonstration Squad, such as the National Domestic Extremism Unit, are still secretly targeting campaigners.

Personally, I and other NMP activists also really want to know the fake identity and the real name of the officer that we may have inadvertently worked with in good faith. I want to know what kind of person pretends to support campaigns for justice but instead was secretly working to try and prevent the truth from ever emerging. For the sake of the transparency and accountability we have always demanded, the Metropolitan police owe all of us that, especially all the people we have supported over the years.

Monday 17 June 2013

Photos from 'They Owe Us' Protest at Canary Wharf

In response to the combined crises of cuts and climate chaos and the call for a week of action against the G8, a number of campaigners including UKUncut, Fuel Poverty Action and Disabled People Against the Cuts came together on Friday to protest in Canary Wharf - what they called "the penthouse suite of global capitalism".

Technically the protest was illegal -in 2011, its owners Canary Wharf Group obtained an indefinite injunction that prohibits "any persons unknown remaining on the Canary Wharf estate in connection to protest action" (all 14 million square feet is private land). The police presence on Friday was pretty heavy for a small protest of 150 people and as usual, Forward Intelligence Team photographers from the Metropolitan Police were busy gathering information for the police 'domestic extremist' database, but the event was entirely peaceful. Here are a few photos I took - the set is on Flickr here

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.