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.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Stuff the Met form and its impertinent questions, use the Guardian letter and follow its instructions. Remember, YOU are asking the questions. Just ask for ALL infomration on you held by the Met, be specific if you can when you are sure they spotted/recorded you at a demo etc. And be tenacious, go to the Information Commissioner if they try to fob you off or you know you are not being supplied with all the information.

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