Netpol’s Guide to Police Surveillance
Why resist police surveillance?
Many people believe that if they have nothing to hide, then they do not need to worry about police surveillance. This is particularly the case if someone is attending a legally organised march or participating in an accountable direct action where they know they are willingly risking arrest.
However, the police obsessively gather intelligence on protesters and you do not have to have committed or have any intent to, commit an offence to end up on a police database. However, once you are identified with a group that is the target of surveillance because you have attended several protests and associated with people known to the police, you may find that you too are targeted more often.
Resisting police surveillance keeps everyone safe. It is well documented that the police target people they perceive as organisers or those from marginalised communities. Those targeted face increased police harassment, are often subject to arbitrary stops and searches and arrests, and are more likely to be criminalised for their participation in protests.
Everyone taking surveillance seriously doesn’t just protect you, it helps to protect people the police want to target.
Online police intelligence gathering
Ever since the riots of 2011 and boosted initially by Home Office funding for the London 2012 Olympics, most forces now have increasingly sophisticated software and employ ‘digital media investigators’ to gather ‘open source’ intelligence on protest movements via social media such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. . It even has an Orwellian-sounding name: SOCMINT (Social Media Intelligence).
Gathering large amounts of data and then subjecting it to extensive analysis enables the police to build profiles of campaigning groups and the relationships between groups; predict the size of protests and who is likely to attend them, and measure early signs of community anger or mobilisation about a particular subject or issue.
Using geo-location data it is also possible for intelligence-gatherers to map out, for example, tweets or uploaded videos in real-time.
The police also use ‘open source’ intelligence to create what is called a ‘subject profile’, which can include details of family and relationships; lifestyle and habits; employment details; and personal finances. We know that police are increasingly keen to monitor people they label as “aggravated activists“, building up a profile on individual campaigners. Social media plays a crucial role in this.
The problem for activists is that sharing information on social media has become an essential part of modern campaigning.
It is true that police can and will direct online intelligence gathering at individuals, but much of the data collected by the police does not require these ‘covert’ measures – we hand over information about ourselves online all the time.
Here are some simple steps to consider when using social media (click + to open):
What information about your group is available to police online?
Most activists use social media accounts for both personal reasons and for campaigning. This can mean a vast amount of information is available about you on one platform.
If you start from the position that anything shared on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other social media platforms is never private, it is worth considering them primarily as publicity tools, not organising spaces.
This is particularly true for Facebook, where we know ‘closed’ Facebook Groups have been used by both the police and industry intelligence-gatherers to document discussions between campaigners, including posts used as evidence to obtain injunctions. Organising this way means it is very easy for the police to search thousands of posts, using only key words and phrases.
Instead, choose secure platforms like encrypted messaging services for your group discussions, such as Signal or Telegram. But you still need to agree who is invited into a private space, and how any agreement is reached. Remember to turn disappearing messages on. Mutually adopting some basic rules in advance will help to avoid problems in the future.
Think about what information you need to collect for campaigning and make sure any data is encrypted and stored securely. Remember that collecting data via programmes like Google forms isn’t secure.
Posting photos and videos with others online
With social media neither private nor secure, is it really a good idea to use social media to mention publicly, for example, where you plan to meet other campaigners before or after attending a demonstration?
Have you thought through whether sharing a blow-by-blow account of real-time events, which helps place you at a particular location, is sensible?
Would it be better, for example, to ask another Twitter user to communicate via a Direct Message or to suggest discussing an issue in another forum, rather than replying to a tweet publicly?
Remember that mentioning other users in social media posts helps to establish a link between you and them. If they are less careful about revealing their location or, for example, discussions at a meeting, this can inadvertently help to reveal information about you that is beyond your control.
Think carefully too about photos or videos you share on sites like YouTube, as you may inadvertently sharing incriminating evidence that could lead to someone’s arrest.
We know that photos from social media have been used to help police surveillance teams to identify individual activists. If you post a photo or video, ask yourself: is it necessary to show faces in images and do you need to name the people in it?
This is why Netpol continues to advise people against livestreaming from demonstrations. No matter how careful you think you are, you are sharing unfiltered images of the people around you with little or no control over what is being shown in the background of your film, meaning your footage could lead to arrests or targeting later on.
Police intelligence gathering on the streets
Watch out for Police Liaison Officers (PLOs)
The ‘friendly’ police officers in light blue bibs that you see on protests are Police Liaison Officers. They are specially trained officers whose job it is to engage you in polite conversation, and document any and all details that you give to them. Despite claiming they are interested only in ‘facilitating’ a protest, they are primarily the police’s frontline intelligence gatherers.
We advise that, for your safety and the safety of the people you’re with, you do not engage with PLOs at all. There’s no such thing as a friendly conversation with the police – and you may be giving away more than you realise. If they try to engage you in conversation, you can reply with “No Comment” to their questions, or simply ignore them until they leave you alone.
Evidence gathering teams
You may also have seen officers at protests with orange tabs on their vests. These are members of the evidence gathering team and will often see them in pairs recording or photographing activists, and surveilling the crowd. Their job is to record who is at the protest and what they are doing, and their evidence is used against protesters later. You are allowed to walk away or hide your face if they are filming or photographing. For more information, see Green and Black Cross’ guide to filming and photography at actions.
Keep wearing a mask
We continue to recommend that unless you have a medical exemption, everyone should still wear face masks when out in crowds due to the risk of coronavirus.
However, you have always had the right to cover your face at a demonstration and you do not need to make it easier for the police to identify you. So keep your mask on – for many years we have argued that there are important tactical reasons for doing so to resist police surveillance.
The police cannot require you to remove a face covering unless it is during a Stop and Search, or there is a blanket 60AA power in place and “there is reason to believe that the item is being worn wholly or mainly for the purpose of disguising identity”.
Think about your mobile phone
Many people choose not to take their smartphones on demonstrations, especially if they think there is a risk of arrest. If you are arrested, the police can access all the data that you have on your phone, including emails, messaging apps, your social media accounts and your pictures and videos.
If you are taking a phone with you, we advise that you log out of all apps that track your location data including Google, taxi apps like Uber, and any free apps that use your location data as part of their targeted ads.
Stay with friends
We always advise anyone attending a protest to let people they trust know where they are going, and when they plan to arrive home. We also advise that you arrive and leave with friends, as police often target people on their own who are travelling to and from the protest site as a means of both intimidation and intelligence gathering.
What about undercover police?
The police have infiltrated campaign groups with undercover officers for over fifty years, and despite the controversies that led to the creation of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, it is unlikely they have stopped.
Usually the exposure of undercover officers has happened by accident. However, the Undercover Research Group has produced a key set of questions based on the way such officers operate and a guide, “Was My Friend a Spycop”, that may help if you suspect someone in your group. They also offer this important advice:
We strongly discourage people from spreading rumours based on suspicions alone, and we recommend following up suspicions with serious research as quickly as possible. Gossiping without confirmation does much harm and can destroy groups from within, regardless of whether or not there is any actual infiltration.