This article first appeared on The Canary on 30 May 2019
It is unclear exactly how many people have their personal details included on the police’s national “domestic extremist” database – to give it its full name, the National Special Branch Intelligence System – either identifying them as “nominals” with their own detailed profile or as one of the much larger numbers who are connected to them or mentioned in data gathered from social media.
In 2017, the Metropolitan Police said there were 2690 nominals, but this figure has changed widely over the years. In 2014, they said it was 2627 but in 2013 the Guardian reported a total of 8931 individuals with their own records. Perhaps this sudden drop in “nominals” was a result of negative publicity about the police including a member of the House of Lords, Jenny Jones, on the database.
Netpol has long argued that decisions about whom to target are subjective and political, but they are not entirely arbitrary. There is a definite pattern to how units within the National Counter Terrorism Policing Operations Centre – the latest name for the part of UK policing responsible for gathering intelligence on protest movements – decide on who is a “person of interest” and more likely to face surveillance in the future.
So who are the police most likely to target? Based on what we have seen since Netpol was set up a decade ago, here are five paranoid reasons why the police are more likely to categorise you as a “domestic extremist” – and why you should, therefore, consider whether to make a data protection subject access request to see what information is held about you.
ONE: Your campaign is challenging powerful state and corporate interests
From 2001 to 2005, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) was particularly focused on mass demonstrations against the Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEi) arms fairs in London. It was also busy spying on Smash EDO, the campaign against a Brighton arms manufacturer that John Catt. who took a legal challenge against this surveillance all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, was targeted for.
At the same time, it was political pressure from the pharmaceutical industry that helped to drive the creation of the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit back in 2004. Five years later, their concern was to protect airports and the airline industry.
In 2011, the NPIOU was sharing “the available intelligence on the risk to the new [nuclear] build programme from environmental activism” at a ‘stakeholder roundtable’ with nuclear energy companies including EDF. In 2012, attention also fell on opponents of the enormous securitisation of the London Olympics.
Bringing us right up to the present day, we know from court documents made public by fracking company INEOS that counter-terrorism officers met with the trade body United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) in 2017 and advised them on “the use of injunctions through the civil courts”.
Time and again, there has been close collaboration and intelligence-sharing between the police and powerful corporate interests – particularly those involving key infrastructure or energy provision – to target surveillance towards allegedly “extremist” protesters.
TWO: You are part of a movement that supports civil disobedience or direct action
Protests that involve either civil disobedience (disruption intended to put pressure on the state to negotiate or to change policies, such as the closure of roads and bridges) and direct action (deliberately obstructing corporate interests, such as shutting down an open-cast mine or a fracking site) are almost always non-violent but they always involve campaigners risking arrest for breaking the law.
Both also represent a deliberate challenge to public order and to what the police see as “legitimate” protests: marches and assemblies where no laws are broken and with routes and times that are normally agreed in advance.
The use of tactics such as blockades and disruption of suppliers is why the opponents of the arms trade, anti-fracking campaigners, other environmentalists and animal rights activists have been targeted for surveillance over the years.
THREE: You are part of a campaign or movement that is new or emerging
Faced with any perceived new threat to public order, the police’s first instinct is to gather as much intelligence as possible. This is what we have seen with the growth of the network of anti-fracking groups around the country and emerging solidarity in Britain in support of Palestinian rights or the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. These groups often start out relatively small, but it is their unknown potential that means they are seen as a “risk” and therefore worthy of greater scrutiny.
Despite efforts to actively placate and even praise the police when climate activists used civil disobedience to occupy parts of central London last month, there seems little doubt that their new Extinction Rebellion movement is now of intense interest to the national and regional counter terrorism units who decide who is labelled a “domestic extremist”, just as the anti-fracking movement was in 2014.
The number of arrests, the public criticism of the police’s response and demands by the Home Secretary for officers to use “the full force of the law” inevitably means senior public order commanders are now seeking more intelligence so they can plan for the “threat” of future protests.
FOUR: You are seen as a “leader” or holding an influential role
As the film we released in December 2018 highlighted, campaigners seen as regularly attending protests organised by movements under police surveillance, or who are perceived as holding a prominent public role in a campaign, are far more likely to become a target for intelligence-gathering.
The experience of protesters in the past indicates a greater likelihood that this will lead to routine harassment, such as visits to their home or vehicles stops, as well as an increased risk of arrest.
The label of “domestic extremist” provides a justification for these police tactics and for the active disruption of protests deemed necessary to “restore public order”.
Invariably, the categorisation of prominent figures as “domestic extremists” is based on no actual criminal behaviour but on a subjective assessment of individuals or groups and a conflation of protests that are not “lawful” with illegitimacy. Many who have found themselves on the domestic extremist databases have no criminal record.
FIVE: You are young, or perceived as vulnerable
We have heard again and again about young campaigners or their families who have been targeted because of their alleged “vulnerability to radicalisation” by alleged “domestic extremists”.
If you suspect you may have been categorised as a “domestic extremist”, the first step is to try and find out whether the police hold any information about you.
Our guidance on making a subject access request should help – but others who have tried will know how frustrating this often is.
What Netpol is calling for is the complete end to labelling campaigners as “domestic extremists” and we urge you to add your support to our campaign.