For the past six years a secretive, unaccountable, publicly-funded yet privately-run organisation has collected, collated and analysed vast amounts of personal data relating to political activists, organisers and protesters. By next summer, the £8 million-a-year operation run by the National Coordinator for Domestic Extremism (NCDE) will pass into the control of the Metropolitan Police. This is intended to increase democratic accountability and reassure concerned politicians. Perhaps it will – but on the ground little is likely to change.
Until now, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), a private company engaged in lobbying government and steering police policy, has operated three ‘domestic extremism’ units under the management of the NCDE. These units have access to the data collected by all of Britain’s 43 police forces on individuals and groups engaged in protest or other political activity. They oversee and co-ordinate intelligence gathering on a national scale. This is a powerful organisation, capable of labelling a protester as a ‘domestic extremist’, a tag that is sometimes interpreted as being only one step below ‘terrorist’. Many have argued that the NCDE units should not be operated outside the accountability structures of normal policing. The real question is whether they should be operated at all.
From a civil liberties perspective, there has been consistent criticism of the NCDE units. While the NCDE repeats the mantra that it is only concerned with a small minority of protesters that commit criminal activities, that claim has worn very thin. The largest of the extremism units, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), was forced last year to admit to the Guardian that it kept the details of an 85-year-old pacifist who had never been in trouble with the police, and that it logged his presence at 80 demonstrations that he attended to lawfully protest against the arms trade. While the NCDE website hints at serious crime and terrorism, in reality just being on a protest is enough to justify intelligence gathering.
Also raising concerns is a second NCDE unit, the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU). Its role is to liaise with, advise and support corporations and private companies that have become ‘victims’ of protest campaigns. The NCDE’s involvement came after EDO, an arms company alleged to have supplied weapons components to the Israeli army, was subjected to weekly lawful but noisy protests outside its Brighton factory, and Eon, the energy firm criticised by environmentalists for generating dirty power, was the target of a proposed peaceful mass trespass by Climate Campers. Protesters have voiced concerns that NETCU has shared police intelligence with these companies and stepped well beyond the supposed neutrality of the police.
While the move into the Met will in theory provide accountability and oversight through the Metropolitan Police Association and other police regulators, in reality little will change. The Met is already closely involved with the work of the NCDE. The NPOIU operates from premises provided by the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard, and has seconded police officers and staff from the Met. The Met has also been a key player in developing intelligence-gathering tactics through the use of Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) – officers who monitor, photograph, identify and document political protesters.
The NCDE is engaged, fundamentally, in data analysis. Much of the dirty work is being done by the Met and other regional forces in collecting and storing data for the NCDE to use. Just how much data is kept, on whom, and in what format, has been difficult to determine. But work by campaign group Fitwatch and others has revealed that the Met, at least, holds a remarkable level of information. Its Public Order Unit, known as CO11, operates its own image and criminal database containing the personal details of thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of protesters, data that it shares with NCDE and the Counter Terrorism Unit. As the Financial Times and Sunday Times reported earlier this year, even MP Jeremy Corbyn and Nick Clegg’s interfaith advisor Fiyaz Mughal were the subjects of entries into the Met’s criminal intelligence database after speaking at a Stop the War rally.
For less well known targets, the police have an array of tricks and tactics at their disposal to obtain personal details and photographs. Police routinely video demonstrations, but also frequently seek to systematically photograph individuals in a crowd or group. It is undeniably intimidating – a small group of women holding a peaceful protest camp at Aldermaston found themselves visited by police and cameras earlier this year, and told that the photographs were being used for facial recognition purposes.
Kettles, or ‘containment’ as the police prefer, are used at least as much for intelligence-gathering as for public order purposes. At a trade union march in Birmingham a group was kettled and held after a lawful and peaceful protest moved away from the agreed march route. They were released only when they complied with being searched, filmed and identified. Those who refused were forcibly held in front of police cameras while their belongings were searched for identification. No arrests were made, and no illegal items seized.
Students at the recent protests in London have had a crash course in data-gathering. Protesters held for a long time in kettles provided police with ample opportunity for photographs, which will undoubtedly be retained for reasons other than criminal investigation.
Police used powers given them by the Police Reform Act to demand names and addresses, and they even made ‘preventative arrests’ under breach of the peace powers to make identifications. The vast majority of those people had committed no offence.
Possibly of most concern is the police practice of placing FITs outside lawful public meetings of political and campaign groups, so that those attending have had to deal with uniformed police with large cameras taking their photograph before they even got through the door. In Brighton, MP David Lepper last year accused Sussex police with ‘paparazzi-style’ lenses of deliberately intimidating those attending an environmental campaign meeting.
Intimidation is undoubtedly as much of a tactic as data gathering. Police claim they are deterring people from involvement in groups connected with unlawful activity or disorderly behaviour, and demonstrating that by getting involved in group ‘x’ or protest ‘y’, you are becoming associated with criminal activity, and will be treated as a criminal.
Judging by police behaviour, though, almost every political protest group in the country must be a criminal one, so widely is this tactic used. Many people have been frightened away from engaging in protest about a cause they believe in.
Some groups, such as Unite against Fascism (UAF), which hold peaceful counter-demonstrations against anti-Muslim group the English Defence League, have found themselves the targets of even stronger police interventions. Police forces have worked ‘in partnership’ with local authorities, universities and community organisations to actively dissuade people from attending UAF events. Young people, especially Muslim young people, who ignored this advice and turned up anyway have been targeted by stop and search operations, which frequently result in them having to give their names and addresses to police cameras. Some under 18-year-olds have even been warned that their presence could result in them being referred to social services.
All of this – the data-gathering, the deterrence and prevention – are the core components of the approach known as ‘intelligence-led policing’, described last month by Theresa May as remaining ‘at the centre’ of policing operations. It is a fundamental aspect of the British policing model that has been so heralded by politicians and police alike, and is now being exported around the world to deal with protest and disorder.
‘Intelligence-led policing’ de-emphasises crimes or offences that have been committed, in favour of targeting and deterring those judged to be the most likely perpetrators of future crimes. Kent police are often credited with inventing the term when they put their resources into targeting known car thieves rather than responding to reported thefts. Translated into the political scenario, intelligence-led policing targets whoever the police decide may be potential ‘domestic extremists’.
A classic example has been the implementation of ANPR, Automatic Number Plate Recognition, deployed to ‘deny criminals the use of the road’. It works by stopping, tracking or intercepting cars with vehicle number plates contained in a police database. As well as databases showing up criminal activity, there are databases showing up political activity. FIT officers working at protests frequently note the vehicle numbers of protesters’ cars. Even an elected politician was stopped last year at a police checkpoint some weeks after attending a protest at Faslane nuclear missile base.
Intelligence-led policing is also becoming a multi-million pound industry, with personal fortunes on the table for those who can aid its expansion. Technology is a driving force, with information analytics, facial recognition and database development constantly pushing the boundaries of what is achievable. It is also a lucrative career option for police officers and staff increasingly lured to technology companies working in the law enforcement intelligence field. At the same time, there are few, if any, practical constraints on what the police can do with our data. The police can claim exemption from nearly all of the main provisions of the Data Protection Act, and are permitted to share data with non-police recipients when it is in the interests of ‘preventing crime or disorder’.
Giving the Metropolitan Police control over a nationwide network of information and intelligence on political dissent does not make the policing of protests more accountable. It merely continues a process of centralising power that is far from the interests of a free society. The Met not only has a significant quasi-military capability, it is also acquiring powerful measures of social control. The level of control exercised over the police by any accountability structures is at best questionable, and at worst non-existent.
The British model of policing is one of policing by consent, and the British public, we are told, has consented to this form of policing. That is largely true – far too many of us are consenting and compliant to police data-gathering. The campaigns of protest groups for non-compliance with intelligence-led policing tactics need to be heard and heeded by all.
Val Swain is from Fitwatch.