Since 2009, Netpol has documented the way that the police, through various “domestic extremist” units, have engaged in intensive overt and covert surveillance on protest movements and in the retention of personal details about protestors
In June 2014, it was revealed that even the personal details of the Green Party peer and former Deputy Mayor of London, Baroness Jenny Jones, had been included on the police’s national ‘domestic extremism’ database. A whistle-blower subsequently revealed that the Metropolitan Police, who administer the database, had deliberately destroyed records to cover up its surveillance on Jones.
This is part of a pattern of surveillance that it is often impossible to confirm, but which can have a chilling effect on rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
There is no way to check on the accuracy of information held about campaigners on a database and smearing legitimate dissent as ‘extremism’ often seems deliberately intended to drive away wider public support from their campaigns.
It also has also resulted in the constant photographing and filming of protesters, officers following them, or conducting expected visits to work or home.
Netpol remains opposed to all police surveillance on political activism and supported the UN Special Rapporteur’s call in 2013 for authorities to “instruct police officers that peaceful protestors should not be categorized as domestic extremists”.
Legal challenges to protest surveillance
In 2014, Netpol was granted permission to intervene in the Supreme Court, in an appeal concerning the lawfulness of the Metropolitan Police’s ‘domestic extremist’ database.
The Metropolitan Police sought to overturn an earlier Court of Appeal ruling in March 2013 that gathering and retaining information on peace campaigner John Catt, a regular at anti-arms trade protests in Brighton called by the ‘Smash EDO’ campaign, was unlawful.
The judgment in December 2014 in favour of the police amounted, in our view, to judicial approval for the mass surveillance of UK protest movements. It affirmed the Metropolitan Police’s stated belief that anyone taking part in a public protest has no reasonable expectation of privacy.
You can read our detailed analysis of the Supreme Court judgment here.
Making the case for protest anonymity
As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Netpol has sought to challenge attitudes towards greater protection of protesters’ privacy and debated the ethics of wearing a face covering or mask.
We have argued that, rather than acting as a barrier to taking part in a protest, the desire for anonymity may in fact represent the main deciding factor for many about whether they are able to participate at all.
However, as long as the decision to wear a mask as a way of maintaining some degree of anonymity is taken only by only a few protesters, it does increase the risk that the police will pick people out for arrest. We have suggested one of the few ways to change this is to normalise the wearing of a face covering, so that it no longer perceived as a symbol of a minority.
We have subsequently encouraged protesters taking to the streets to plan in advance how they cover up to resist intrusive police surveillance.
Police Liaison Officers
Netpol has been at the forefront of exposing the intelligence-gathering role of Police Liaison Officers, who wear light blue bibs at demonstrations and who are supposedly present simply to “facilitate protest”.
In October 2013, a Freedom of Information request by Netpol revealed that standard operating procedures in London fully expected that PLOs were “likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members” and insisted this information was “passed to Bronze Intelligence for analysis”.
In June 2014, a review of anti-fracking protests in Balcombe in Sussex confirmed that senior commanders saw their Police Liaison Officers playing a ‘pivotal role’ in gathering intelligence on protesters.
You can find more information on Police Liaison Officers and their role in protest surveillance here.
Domestic Extremist Awareness Day
Campaigners deeply resent the smearing of their activism by the police as ‘extremism’, not only because this label is evidently so easy to apply without the slightest evidence, but because it seems deliberately intended to drive away wider public support.
Since 2014, Netpol has organised an annual Domestic Extremist Awareness Day on 5 February, to highlight the police’s obsession with finding so-called ‘domestic extremists’ amongst campaigners and activists.
In 2017, we asked campaigners to share photos of their protests, actions and assemblies on social media with the slogan “This is Not Domestic Extremism”. In 2018, we held a protest outside the Metropolitan Police’s new Westminster headquarters, calling for consigning to history the use of “domestic extremism”as a label for smearing campaigners.
It takes time and energy to defend our right to freely assemble in public without facing the threat of arrest or harassment from the police – and it takes the support of people like you.