Tuesday 8 October 2013

Resisting Police Surveillance - An Overview

This is an unedited version of an article I wrote that appears under the title "Keeping an eye on us" in the current issue of Red Pepper magazine. It aims to give an overview of the complex issue of police surveillance and undercover spies.

Surveillance officers at Kings Cross station for UKUncut protest, April 2012 [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
The existence of a secret Special Branch unit that had infiltrated and gathered intelligence on political groups has been known for some time: the journalist Peter Taylor spoke to a number of anonymous former members of the Metropolitan Police's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) from the 1970s and 1980s for his television series 'True Spies' as far back as 2002.

However, the unmasking in October 2010 of police officer Mark Kennedy, who had worked undercover for seven years in the environmental protest movement, was unique. For the first time, a police spy had been publicly named and it led to further revelations about other undercover officers, including 'Lynn Watson' in Leeds, 'Marco / Mark Jacobs' in Cardiff and PC Andrew 'Jim' Boyling inside the roads protest group Reclaim The Streets in London. It has also triggered an internal Metropolitan police review led by the chief constable of Derbyshire, Mick Creedon, and a two year investigation by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, which has so far identified 12 police spies inside different protest movements. The publication in June this year of their book, “Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police”, with an accompanying Channel 4 Dispatches programme, has reignited public and media interest in the conduct of these officers and the lack of accountability of undercover police operations.

Unravelling the secret identities of men like Mark Kennedy has revealed genuine individual suffering that has resulted from their lies and deception, including the cynical sexual abuse of women activists, who have begun legal action against five officers, and the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry based on information passed to private companies by the police. However, much of the headline-catching and often shocking information from former Special Demonstration Squad officer Peter Francis, the Guardian's whistleblower who is central to Lewis and Evans' book, focuses on the period from the late 1980s to 2000 when Francis was working undercover. His exposures include the key role of one former SDS officer Bob Lambert, now an academic at the University of St Andrews, in co-authoring the London Greenpeace leaflet that led to the infamous McLibel defamations trial in 1994. Francis has also revealed the targeting of the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence and of anti-racist and black justice campaigns throughout the 1990s, including one, the Newham Monitoring Project in east London, that I was active in at the time.

However, keeping the spotlight on activities involving the now-disbanded SDS during the 1990s has, to some extent, allowed the Metropolitan Police to try and distance itself from what it is portraying as 'historical allegations' that are hard to investigate: in a statement, Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said, “finding out the truth about what happened 20 years ago is not a straightforward task”. Although the surveillance of the Lawrence family in particular is embarrassing for the Met, it has distracted attention away from undercover officers like Kennedy, Watson and Jacobs, who were active much later, during the last decade.

Until they were uncovered in 2010, all were part of a different and far bigger operation than the London-centred SDS, called the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which operated undercover throughout England and Wales. Until 2010, when it came under the command of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command, the unit was based within the Association of Chief Police Officers, a private company, which meant that it was largely exempt from any public scrutiny. As recently as 2009, Mark Kennedy's activities for NPOIU led to the arrest of 114 climate activists in Nottingham for conspiring to shut down a coal-fired power station and came close to creating a serious miscarriage of justice: evidence he had gathered that exonerated many of the arrested activists was not disclosed to the defence at their trial and 20 people were convicted of conspiracy. These convictions were only quashed when the case against six others collapsed after Kennedy has been exposed.

Units like NPOIU that were created in the late 1990s represented an expansion in tactics by the police. The last decade has seen a significant shift towards gathering vast quantities of intelligence data and sifting it for patterns and connections to predict how individuals and groups will act, the basis for the National Intelligence Model originally developed in 2000 for tackling serious organised crime. The same approach has been adopted wholesale by officers monitoring protest movements and the result is that, with little democratic debate or accountability, large numbers of people who have been engaged in legitimate campaigning, many with no criminal records, are now on secret police databases for opinions or activities (like non-violent civil disobedience) that were once seen as “normal” in a free society. A recent estimate suggests there could be as many as 9000.
Police Liaison Officers at the anti-EDL protest in Tower Hamlets in September [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
Whilst there are almost certainly still undercover officers at work, collecting data on an industrial scale involves more visible and far more invasive methods. Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) police photographers target 'persons of interest' at protests. Officers make widespread use of stop and search powers, as was evident at the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth in 2008, or refuse to allow demonstrations to leave a police 'kettle' until they provide their names and addresses. It can even mean mass arrests as a form of intelligence-gathering, which according to testimony given in Parliament by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, seems to have been the main reason for the detention of UKUncut activists who briefly occupied the Fortnum and Mason store in London in March 2011. A recent Freedom of Information request about Police Liaison Officers, the officers in blue bibs who have appeared at demonstrations since 2009 and whose role is supposedly facilitating protest and improving communication, has confirmed that they are "likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members" and “must ensure all intelligence is recorded on Crimint" [a Met police database]. During the trial of a number of cyclists arrested at a Critical Mass on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year, a senior officer revealed that at least six Police Liaison Officers had attended the previous Critical Mass in plain clothes and on bikes to 'identify organisers'.

Coupled with the use of technology to monitor social media by the successor to the NPOIU, the National Domestic Extremism Unit, the police are aiming to build a detailed picture of individuals that involves far more than investigating and prosecuting offences. According to Val Swain of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol), which brings together a number of groups concerned about the rising level of protest surveillance, “while ostensibly acting against criminality, intelligence-led policing of protest has the potential to disrupt and deter the act of protest itself”. Put simply, its origins in tackling organised crime mean it is almost designed to frighten people into avoiding the exercise of their right to protest and worse, says Swain, it operates “away from the scrutiny of the criminal justice system, there are no checks and balances, no public visibility, and no effective accountability”. NetPol argues that it is this lack of accountability that protected undercover officers like Mark Kennedy for so many years and ensures that almost anyone can be treated as a potential criminal if they participate in many forms of protest. It is calling for the abolition of the National Domestic Extremism Unit saying, “we do not accept that the case has been made for the necessity of continuing the activity of a unit that has been associated with unethical and possibly unlawful behaviour, nor any other that specialises in the surveillance of dissent”.

FIT photographer at Occupy's 'Meet The 1%' protest, May 2012 [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
But while the surveillance of protest continues, what can individuals do to protect themselves? There are some simple steps: avoid talking to Police Liaison Officers, for example, would seem sensible considering what we now know about their intelligence role. The campaigners from FITwatch recommend using face coverings to ensure police Forward Intelligence Team officers cannot photograph you: masks are always legal to wear, although in certain circumstances a police officer may arrest you if you refuse to remove one. It is probably a good idea too to avoid carrying a mobile phone with every personal contact you have if there is a possibility that you may be arrested. NetPol is also arguing that protesters should avoid agreeing to leave a police 'kettle' in exchange for providing personal details to officers, particularly now that the High Court has ruled that it is “not lawful for the police to maintain the containment for the purposes of obtaining identification, whether by questioning or by filming [and] not lawful to require identification to be given and submission to filming as the price for release.”

It is important to remember, more than anything, that almost every effort to gather more and more intelligence on protesters has been successfully resisted by activists and their lawyers. Meanwhile, if you want to find out what data the police already hold on you, consider making a Data Protection Act subject access request to find out if you are on the “domestic extremist” database. Guidance on how to do so is available from Guardian or here at Random Blowe.

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