Excessive state surveillance is now ‘undermining British democracy’

1st September 2019 / United Kingdom
Excessive state surveillance - 'undermining British democracy'

Regular readers of TruePublica know we have published many reports and articles over the last four years relating to state surveillance. Here is our database. Today, it is a very serious worry that our entire mechanism of democracy is being undermined by excessive and uncontrolled state surveillance. This disproportionate obsession – ramped up significantly by Theresa May when at the Home Office, inhibits the fundamental ability of human rights and civil liberty experts and campaigners to exercise their rights to protest effectively. We should always consider the impact of excessive state surveillance on our democratic rights and society more generally.


Kevin Blowe is the coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) from 2014 when it began focusing on the policing of opposition to fracking across the country. He regularly contributes to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s work on protecting rights to freedom of assembly and spent 25 years as a campaigner with the Newham Monitoring Project in East London. Netpol brings together many of the UK’s most experienced activists, campaigners, lawyers and researchers to share knowledge and expertise. The network highlights and challenges disproportionate or excessive policing that violate the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. It works in partnership with independent front-line groups, to address the lack of a cohesive voice for these groups within the mainstream discourse around civil liberties.

This what Kevin Blowe wrote in a landmark report relating only to state surveillance in Gt Britain entitled – “The state of surveillance.” The report was extensive in that it covered state surveillance in areas such as policing, blacklisting, investigative journalism, legal profession privilege, vulnerable groups, peaceful protestors and campaigners, schools, immigration, health, welfare – in fact almost every corner of civil society. This is an excerpt dealing with the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance on the right to freedom of assembly. We will be publishing parts of the various differences components over the next few weeks.


The ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance on the right to freedom of assembly


The right to freedom of assembly is protected by national and international human rights law. For a number of years, Netpol has worked with organisations like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help refine guidelines on assembly rights and to highlight, in particular, how confrontation policing, the misuse of force and mass arrests are not the only factors likely to have a ‘chilling effect’ by actively discouraging people from taking part in peaceful protest.

So too does the use of sophisticated and intrusive surveillance to target individual activists, campaign groups and even entire social and political movements. Public order policing in the UK is intelligence-led and the standard is set out in the National Intelligence Model that was developed in 2000 by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now part of the National Crime Agency). Central to the model is the creation and use of personal profiles to “provide a detailed picture of the (potential) offender and his associates for subsequent action”, including “habits, lifestyle, modus operandi, addresses, places frequented, family-tree chart, photographs, risk to public, ability to protect him/herself, and related information.”

The problem, however, is that UK police have treated legitimate campaigning activities in a similar way to their response to organised criminal networks: by building profiles on the size, structures, leadership and alliances of campaign groups, by singling-out ‘organisers’ for particular attention, by visiting campaigners at home, filming attendance at meetings and protests and by routinely monitoring social media.


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The National Intelligence Model also identifies a “control strategy” with resources allocated for intelligence, prevention and enforcement, with particular emphasis on “disruption” and “network demolition”. Since Netpol was founded in 2009, individual campaigners have repeatedly expressed to us their concerns about personal targeting or being ‘picked out’ after having their photograph taken, facing identification checks by police during a stop and search and police officers publicly naming them.

We have had numerous reports of activists and even volunteers helping refugees being detained, interviewed and searched under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 at ports and airports. Campaigners have also told us how obvious or conspicuous surveillance alienates people from others, including communities they are trying to connect or engage with by creating the impression that they are criminals or ‘trouble’. Campaigners have also said they believe surveillance is intentionally divisive, calling attention to those who are allegedly ‘aggressive’ or whom the police want to isolate or alienate from other protesters.


Domestic extremists

This fear, that police surveillance is concerned less with actual criminal behaviour and more with disruption based on subjective political judgements is fuelled by the way the police have claimed a broad and diverse range of campaigners are “domestic extremists”. This label has no basis in law and its definition has changed often since it appeared in 2004.

It first came to national prominence in 2009 when the Guardian reported on how surveillance was used to police peaceful environmental protests at the Drax power station in North Yorkshire three years earlier. However, it was the exposure in 2011 of the undercover police officer Mark Kennedy that led to far greater concerns about the scale of surveillance of campaigners and eventually to the setting up of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in 2015.

Of equal concern is the extent of data retention on various national “domestic extremism” databases. In 2014, the Green Party peer and former Deputy Mayor of London, Baroness Jenny Jones, discovered her personal details had been included on the database – administered by the Metropolitan Police, over whom she had had an oversight role – and subsequently that they had deliberately destroyed records to cover up its surveillance on her.

The same year, a campaigner discovered that police had been carrying out surveillance on political campaigners while they were at the Glastonbury festival and the police disclosed that I too had been labelled a “domestic extremist”, despite having no criminal record, because of involvement in campaigning around security and the 2012 Olympics.

In 2015, another Green Party politician, Ian Driver, who was standing as a parliamentary candidate in Kent against former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, found out that he had been monitored by police for over four years. Despite the many concerns it raised, the “domestic extremism” label has, nevertheless, proved convenient for the police in providing a justification for the scale of intelligence-gathering on political dissent. In particular, it has been utilised to obscure from public scrutiny the involvement of counterterrorism officers in the government’s secretive Prevent programme.

Since 2014, Netpol has organised an annual Domestic Extremist Awareness Day to highlight the negative impact of the police obsessively searching for and monitoring so-called ‘extremists’ amongst campaigners and activists, and to support the UN Special Rapporteur’s call in 2013 (repeated in 2016) for authorities to “instruct police officers that peaceful protestors should not be categorised as domestic extremists”.

We have highlighted the significant obstacles campaigners face to find out whether they have been labelled an extremist or to challenge the inaccuracy of information held about them.  We also intervened as an interested party in the UK Supreme Court appeal case of Brighton protester John Catt – a case that resulted, controversially, in judicial approval for the mass surveillance of UK political activism. After legal proceedings lasting two years, Netpol managed in 2018 to successfully challenge the police at an Information Tribunal and force them to confirm that anti-fracking campaigners had been referred to a project for people deemed “vulnerable to radicalisation.”



In our work supporting the anti-fracking movement, we have documented how campaigners engaged in peaceful direct action have been included in Prevent training for public sector staff as examples of an alleged extremist threat.

For example, in September 2015, it emerged that a Prevent training session organised by West Yorkshire Police for teachers gave the arrest of Green MP Caroline Lucas at an anti-fracking protest in Sussex as an example of extremism (it was subsequently revealed that Lucas had been regularly tracked by domestic extremism unit officers). We have also raised concerns about how labelling opponents of the onshore oil and gas industry is likely to drive decisions about potentially deploying undercover police officers (in 2016 the National Police Chiefs Council refused to rule this out, saying “any tactic, including covert tactics, is for the policing commander for the operation”).

In December 2016, the Home Office was finally forced to issue a statement saying “support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability” to extremism after press coverage about City of York Council20 and a school in Driffield in North Yorkshire21 including anti-fracking campaigns in their counter-terrorism advice.



However, in September 2017, ‘Counter-Terrorism Local Profiles’ developed by the police under the government’s Prevent strategy were released and identified protests at Broadford Bridge in Sussex as a “priority theme… where increased tensions or vulnerabilities may exist”.

A similar profile for Surrey highlighted “community tensions related to onshore oil and gas operations” in the east of the county. Protests in both areas did not start until months after the Home Office gave assurances to anti-fracking campaigners that it would no longer collectively treat them as a “domestic extremist” threat. In fact, since the first revelations about the scale of secretive surveillance on hundreds of campaign groups led to a public inquiry, the national unit formerly responsible for “domestic extremism” has been subsumed into the police’s nationwide Counter-Terrorism Network.

This means that it is far more difficult to obtain disclosure of information about so-called ‘extremism’ related to protest because it is treated, in effect, like terrorism. This matters for individual campaigners because the Metropolitan Police’s own policy on the creation of ‘nominal files’ on its secret databases acknowledges that a person identified as a subject of interest is treated differently “over and above people named in general intelligence records”.

The consequence is that any interaction a person affected has with the police, whether or not at a protest, is likely to flag up that the person is a subject of interest. We believe without any meaningful definition of what “domestic extremism” means, the label threatens the growth and development of civil society and justifies a range of intrusive monitoring tactics and repressive policing measures.


The impact

Monitoring of entirely peaceful demonstrations already indicates that campaigners taking part in them are far more likely than the population in general to face arrest and therefore to have their biometric data (facial characteristics, fingerprints or DNA) recorded and retained.

Even if, as is regularly the case, they are never charged with an offence, it is unlikely all this data is ever deleted. There is also heard testimony from campaigners that suggests police are continuing to compile datasets from routinely tracking the movement of vehicles at protests and photographing anyone associated with protest groups, without the need to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion of involvement in crime.

This was reported on as far back as 20092 and Netpol has witnessed it at protests against fracking in Cheshire and Lancashire. As well as automated tracking using ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) technology, this year we have also observed the police openly deploying automated facial recognition surveillance at an anti-arms fair protest for the first time.

The impact of such data gathering and retention is extensive. On top of the issues already highlighted, we have documented evidence that campaigners involved in public assemblies are more likely to face vehicle stops and interference in matters unrelated to protest (in several instances, for example, farmers in Lancashire who were arrested for minor offences at anti-fracking protests found that their shotgun licences were revoked without explanation – and in one instance, a shotgun was collected by armed officers).


Netpol has long argued that this intense focus on surveillance provides as much of a ‘chilling effect’ on the freedom to protest as any confrontational policing at a protest itself: it is just as likely to discourage many from participation in campaigning activities.


It has also significantly shifted operational priorities, leading police commanders to prioritise intelligence gathering over negotiation or mediation; and it influences officers’ discretion in favour of making arrests as an opportunity to obtain information on individuals. It has significantly compromised, for example, the credibility of Police Liaison Officers, whose role is supposedly to facilitate protest but who are widely treated with suspicion by most campaigners. Key to all these concerns is the question of privacy in the gathering of data by the police and the inappropriate use of counter-terrorism powers. Much debate on privacy and the gathering and retention of data remains overwhelmingly focused on individual rights.

This overlooks the additional negative impact of surveillance when applied to an entire group, and an entire democratic mechanism. The excessive surveillance of activists inhibits collective discussion, decision-making and organisation, which are fundamental to the ability of campaigners to exercise their rights to protest effectively. We must consider the impact of this surveillance on our democratic rights and society as a whole.


Read the FULL REPORT here (pdf).








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