The existence of a secret Special Branch unit that infiltrated and gathered intelligence on political groups has been known for some time. Indeed, 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 2010 unmasking of Mark Kennedy, who had worked undercover for seven years in the environmental protest movement, was unique. For the first time, a police spy was publicly named, and it led to revelations about others, 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 also triggered a Met internal review 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 2013 release of their book, Undercover: the true story of Britain’s secret police, with an accompanying Channel 4 Dispatches programme, has reignited interest in the conduct of these officers and the lack of accountability of undercover police operations.
Unravelling these officers’ identities has revealed the genuine suffering that resulted from their lies and deception. This includes the cynical sexual abuse of women activists, who have begun legal action against five officers, and the blacklisting of workers based on information passed from police to private construction companies.
Much media attention has focused on the period from the 1980s to the 2000s, when Guardian whistleblower Peter Francis was working undercover. His often shocking revelations have exposed the role of SDS officer Bob Lambert, now an academic at the University of St Andrews, in co-authoring the London Greenpeace leaflet about McDonald’s that led to the infamous ‘McLibel’ defamation trial in 1994. Francis also revealed the targeting of the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence and anti-racist campaigns throughout the 1990s, including one, the Newham Monitoring Project in east London, in which I was active at the time.
However, keeping the spotlight on the activities of the now-disbanded SDS during the 1990s has, to some extent, allowed the Met to distance itself from what it is portraying as ‘historical allegations’ that are hard to investigate. In a statement, Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has said that ‘finding out the truth about what happened 20 years ago is not a straightforward task’. Although the surveillance of the Lawrence family is particularly embarrassing for the Met, it has distracted attention away from Kennedy, Watson and Jacobs and other infiltrators who were active more recently.
Until they were uncovered in 2010, all were part of an operation far bigger than the SDS. The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which worked throughout England and Wales, was at that time based within a private company and largely exempt from public scrutiny. Kennedy’s activities resulted in the arrest of 114 Nottingham climate activists for conspiring to shut down a coal-fired power station. This came close to a serious miscarriage of justice when evidence he had gathered that exonerated many of the arrested activists was not disclosed at their trial, and 20 people were convicted of conspiracy. These convictions were only quashed following Kennedy’s exposure and the collapse of a case against six others.
Created in the late 1990s, units such as NPOIU represented an expansion in police tactics. The past 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. This approach, originally developed in 2000 to tackle serious organised crime, was soon applied to protest movements. Secret police databases now store records on as many as 9,000 people who have engaged in lawful campaigning. Many are targeted for their opinions or for nonviolent civil disobedience, once seen as ‘normal’ in a free society.
There are almost certainly undercover officers still at work, but the police’s large-scale data collection relies on other methods, too. 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 demonstrators to leave a police ‘kettle’ until they provide their names and addresses. It can even involve mass arrests as a form of intelligence gathering – which, according to testimony given in parliament by Met assistant commissioner Lynne Owens, seems to have been the main reason for the detention of the UK Uncut activists who briefly occupied the Fortnum and Mason store in London in 2011.
A recent freedom of information request about police liaison officers – 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 [the Met police database] Crimint’. During the trial of a number of cyclists arrested at a Critical Mass action on the day of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, a senior officer revealed that at least six liaison officers had attended the previous Critical Mass in plain clothes to ‘identify organisers’.
Combining these tactics with social media monitoring by the National Domestic Extremism Unit, police are building more detailed pictures of individuals. According to Val Swain of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol), which brings together groups concerned about 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 from exercising 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’.
NetPol argues that lack of accountability long protected undercover officers such as Kennedy and ensures that almost any protester can be treated as a potential criminal. Its members are calling for abolition of the National Domestic Extremism Unit, stating they don’t accept the case for a unit that ‘specialises in the surveillance of dissent’.
So while protest surveillance continues, what can individuals do to protect themselves?
First, avoid talking to police liaison officers, considering what we now know about their intelligence role. Campaigners from FITwatch also recommend using face coverings to ensure Forward Intelligence Team officers can’t photograph you. It is never illegal to wear a mask, although in certain circumstances an officer may arrest you if you refuse to remove one.
It’s probably a good idea, too, to avoid carrying a mobile phone with all your personal contacts if there’s a possibility you’ll be arrested. NetPol advises against agreeing to leave a police ‘kettle’ in exchange for handing over personal information. The high court has now ruled it ‘not lawful’ for police to confine people to obtain identification, or to require identification or filming as a condition of release.
More than anything, it’s important to remember that almost every effort to gather 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’re on the ‘domestic extremist’ database. Guidance is available from the Guardian (search ‘domestic extremist police databases’) and on my blog Random Blowe (‘How to find out what secret surveillance says about you’).