Intelligence gathering at Gaza protest

Intelligence gathering at London Gaza protest in 2014 | PHOTO: Netpol

If you are planning to attend this November’s national student march, you should start planning now to cover up against intrusive surveillance

On Wednesday 4 November, students from around the country will assembly in London for the ‘Free Education & Living Grants For All’ protest called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Coming almost five years to the day since the start of a wave of student unrest began in London, marchers will find themselves joined by an array of police intelligence-gatherers. The demonstration is liable to face an intense level of surveillance.

As well as demanding living grants for all and an education system that is free, this is also an opportunity for student protesters to take an important stand to protect their individual privacy while out on the streets and exercising their freedom of assembly. One of the few remaining ways to do so in the current climate of mass surveillance is by covering your face with a mask or scarf and ensuring that in future, this becomes as normal on every protest as carrying a placard.

Covering up matters now, more than ever, because forcing people to accept sacrificing their privacy to a growing surveillance state, just so they can enjoy freedoms of assembly and expression, is fundamentally wrong. By asserting your right to anonymity, you make it easier for others to do so too.

If everyone decides to wear a face mask, they help protect individuals targeted by police as “organisers” from unwarranted attention and random arrest and support all those who, for a variety of reasons, might otherwise refrain from taking part in protest because of genuine concerns about the consequences of surveillance.

If you object to officers taking and retaining photographs of you, then the sensible position is to follow the police’s own legal advice. It accepts individuals 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…”

We believe this must become a greater priority because, back in March, the UK Supreme Court ruled 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’.

Even before this Supreme Court judgment, we had already seen the consequences of mass police surveillance of protests. Thousands of names have been added to a secretive Metropolitan Police “domestic extremist” database and it is extremely difficult to find out who is targeted and what information the police retain on it.

Some have received visits to their homes – or in the case of students, to their parents’ homes. We do know that as well as protesters, the database has included details about London Assembly member and Green Party peer Jenny Jones, as well as members of the National Union of Journalists.

plan c

Demonstrators on the June 2015 anti-austerity march | PHOTO: Plan C

On 4 November, we therefore call on as many demonstrators as possible to cover their faces. This means planning ahead and we recommend:

  • Choosing a colour that reflects your political stance, your college or university or one that simply stands out from others.
  • Buying material to make masks to hand out to your bloc or delegation. You can find a template here for the size of mask Netpol produced for our Privacy Bloc back in June.
  • It is November, so you might decide instead to kit our your bloc with identical, plain scarves – a warmer way for protesters to cover up.
  • If you can afford to, you can consider bulk-buying bandanas wholesale (see for example, here and here)

Whatever you decide, there is no reason why photographs of participants on the march on 4 November need to end up among the “mugshots” on the Met’s huge facial recognition database or on its Crimint and domestic extremism databases.

Covering your face to protect your privacy remains entirely lawful. By wearing a face mask you are expressing solidarity with all protesters who have been – and who continue to be – the subject of police surveillance.

For more on the limited circumstances when police can demand that you reveal your identity if you are wearing a mask, visit the Green and Black Cross website.