A week ago, the Metropolitan Police responded to a Freedom of Information request asking for the total number of individuals currently classified as potential ‘domestic extremists’ and having their own records on the database of the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU). The information they supplied was intriguing: they said:
There are currently 2627 individuals on the database that have their own record. However I would like to explain that there is no legal definition of Domestic Extremists and so these individuals may not be classified as potential domestic extremists. However a new definition was recently agreed and publicised by the Commissioner at a MOPAC challenge panel.
The new working definition of Domestic Extremism is therefore;
“Domestic Extremism relates to the activity of groups or individuals who commit or plan serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint”
To begin with, this explanation suggests that the unit responsible for surveillance of so-called ‘domestic extremists’ may hold individual records on people it doesn’t actually classify as ‘domestic extremists’. What possible reason could they have for doing so? Secondly, the number of records differs sharply from figures published in the Guardian less than a year ago: the report said a total of 8931 individuals “have their own record”. The paper’s reporter Rob Evans has confirmed this too came from a Freedom of Information request. So what happened to the 6304 ‘missing’ records in the last ten months?
Clearing out the dubious records?
The new ‘working definition’, although it still has no legal status, may provide a clue. It was in fact raised not at a London Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC) “Challenge Panel” meeting but as the result of questioning by Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones. Correspondence to her from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe [ 106 kB] confirms the new wording was agreed in October 2013 and attempts to offer a rather unconvincing promise that “it would not usually apply to low levels of civil disobedience such as civil trespass or minor obstruction”. As Jenny rightly points out in a reply [ 146 kB] to the Commissioner, this does not cover the commonly used charge of ‘aggravated trespass’ under section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 or say whether it too counts as ‘low level’ civil disobedience. A subsequent clarification by the National Coordinator on Domestic Extremism, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Greany, in a letter to Jenny Jones on 21 March [ 141 kB], says that aggravated trespass “would not meet the threshold” for the definition of domestic extremism but comes with one hugely significant caveat – adding “unless there was serious criminality”
It is at least possible that the disparity in the number of records of alleged ‘domestic extremists’ results from the Metropolitan Police deciding, under pressure from the extensive and embarrassing coverage of its covert surveillance of protesters and last year’s appeal by John Catt, to use the redefining of domestic extremism as an opportunity to clear-out its database – removing names it cannot ever justifiably claim are planning or committing ‘serious criminal activity’. Netpol is aware of a number of people who do not fit the new ‘working definition’ but who were spied upon in the past and is seeking to clarify whether a massive deletion of records has in fact taken place. What happens to this data, however, is unclear: surveillance is, of course, carried out in secret and hardly anyone will know if data held about them has been destroyed, just as most won’t know the information existed in the first place. That is why we have been encouraging activists to submit subject access requests.
Reinterpreting ‘serious crime’
How much of a change does this new way of describing ‘domestic extremism’ really represent in practice – and what counts as ‘serious criminal activity’? For most people, it probably brings to mind crimes like murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking or sexual exploitation. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance, says that one of the tests of a ‘serious crime’ is whether someone with no previous convictions “could reasonably be expected to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of three years or more.” However section 81(2b) of RIPA also includes this alternate test:
That the conduct involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose.
The last part of this test is very broadly and vaguely worded: by definition, criminal conduct that is neither violent nor involving financial gain can become ‘serious crime’ when it is carried out by “a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”. Aggravated trespass, for example, would not ‘usually’ represent a serious crime (it carries a maximum imprisonment of three months and usually a fine). However, it conceivably might if it was part of an attempted mass occupation of a power station. In addition, there is no definition of ‘large number of persons’ or any stipulation that a ‘large number’ are in the same place. Hundreds of people opposing fracking in multiple sites, for instance, could potentially still meet the definition of ‘serious crime’.
Crucially, none of this is ever tested in court: the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit can continue to harvest data on people using a definition it has created itself, that it can interpret as broadly as it wishes, that it can apply to situations that most people would not recognise as ‘serious crime’ and that involves no public scrutiny. This is why the reassurances given to Jenny Jones by the head of the NDEDIU about aggravated trespass are essentially meaningless and why there is little to stop the number of people on secret police databases from growing again.
The NDEDIU’s officers, meanwhile, continue to monitor protests where there is little prospect of serious crime: one well-known officer, Ian Skivens, was spotted hovering around the “Fracked Future Carnival” at the London Shale Gas Forum in March.
For all these reasons, Netpol continues to argue that the Unit and its data-gathering operation should be abolished completely.