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Nobody should expect to give up their right to privacy, just so they can exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly

Netpol’s ‘Privacy Bloc‘ made quite an impact at the People’s Assembly anti-austerity demonstration in London on Saturday 20 June. We distributed around 850 face coverings and – even in a march of thousands – images of masked protesters appeared in much of the media coverage. We are delighted with how well received the masks were received on the march itself, from people from different backgrounds and all ages. It was clear we could easily have handed out many more – an indicator that people are already starting to consider the need to protect their privacy and anonymity on the streets.

So, having kick-started the debate on the need for protest anonymity, where do we go from here?

Netpol has argued that from now on, everyone taking part in a rally or demonstration needs to give a far greater priority to their individual privacy, because the UK Supreme Court has opened the door to mass police surveillance. Its judgment in March 2015 said that gathering and retaining data on protesters is only a ‘minor’ invasion of privacy rights when carried out by ‘overt activities in public places’ and is justified for investigating the ‘links between protest groups’ and their ‘organisation and leadership’.

We believe one of the few remaining ways for protesters to protect their privacy is for wearing face masks to become as normal and commonplace on every protest as, say, carrying a placard. If you object to officers taking and retaining photographs of you, then follow the police’s own legal advice that accepts you are “under no obligation to facilitate the collection of… information and can usually, for example, shield or cover his or her face to avoid a photograph being taken…” By wearing a face mask, you are also expressing solidarity with people who might otherwise refrain from exercising their right to protest because of genuine concerns about the consequences of surveillance.

We hope that at future demonstrations there are thousands, rather than hundreds, of protesters adopting this tactic – and that means coordinating in advance.

Planning to organise a bloc on a march? Choose a colour that reflects your stance (green for climate activism, perhaps, or the suffragette colours – purple, white and green – for a feminist bloc), or one that simply stands out from others.

Plan C with face masks on June's anti-austerity march

Plan C members with face masks on the June 2015’anti-austerity march | Photo: Plan C

Buy and cut out material, or bulk order bandannas from a wholesaler if you can afford them (we may be able to help with contacts).

Then create a powerful visual impact by handing out face masks to members of your bloc.

We recognise, of course, that this will inevitably take time, but it will only happen if it is a decision taken by protest movements themselves.

Here’s some of the coverage of the Privacy Bloc on Saturday: