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Exclusive: Environmental campaigners ‘spied on’ ahead of Sadiq Khan event

Video shows security official picking out campaigners by name and barring them from mayor of London debate at O2 arena

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
2 February 2023, 11.00pm

Security agents linked to London mayor Sadiq Khan “spied” on a group of environmental activists and blocked them from participating in a public debate, openDemocracy can reveal.

Video footage obtained by openDemocracy shows how campaigners who wanted to ask questions at an event with Khan in London’s O2 arena were personally identified and turned away at the door.

In one clip, a plain-clothes security official at the entrance calls out the campaigners’ names as they approach, but refuses to tell them who he is working for. A second clip also shows an O2 security guard admitting he had received “intelligence” about the green campaigners.

Activists in the group said they had wanted to ask Khan questions about plans for the Silvertown Tunnel, a new toll road under the River Thames. One told openDemocracy she felt as though she had been spied on when she was identified at the O2, while others worried that the group’s communications may have been infiltrated.

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openDemocracy has now identified the plain-clothes security official as Reg Walker, the director of a private security firm called ISG Commercial Ltd. When asked how he had been able to identify the campaigners by name, Walker said the information had been provided by a “third party”, but wouldn’t say who.

Documents obtained by openDemocracy show information about campaigners was shared between Khan’s Greater London Authority (GLA), the O2 and ISG Commercial Ltd, which is described as a “security services provider for The O2”. 

One email exchange between GLA officials refers to “intelligence being filtered through on the night” about a planned protest, and adds: “O2’s security intelligence unit is extremely good and effective.”

The O2 and Greater London Authority have refused to elaborate on what this unit is. The O2 also refused to comment on any other aspect of openDemocracy’s investigation.

One campaigner said: “I think it was very concerning how they had all our names, how they knew exactly our plans from the tiniest detail that you wouldn’t know unless you were covertly trying to find that out, and also the fact that we couldn’t find out his name, we didn’t know what company he was working for, we had no idea who and how that information had been gained. It was not public knowledge. I would say it was spying, surveillance.”

Another added: “It does feel like surveillance.”

Silvertown Tunnel

Green New Deal Rising (GNDR) describes itself as a movement of young people, aged 18 to 35, who fight to stop the climate crisis. Last year, members made headlines after interrupting a speech by the former home secretary, Priti Patel, demanding that she drop plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.  

The group has long campaigned against the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel in east London and previously challenged Khan about the issue in November 2021. 

Tunnelling began in the autumn, linking the London boroughs of Greenwich and Newham either side of the River Thames. But it has been heavily criticised over concerns about traffic and air pollution, as well as the impact it could have on some of London’s poorest communities.

In June last year, GNDR campaigners registered to attend the State of London Debate at the O2, where, according to the website, “Londoners can quiz the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan… about issues that matter – from cycling to jobs, the environment to housing”. 

Speaking to openDemocracy, the group said they had planned to ask a series of questions about Silvertown and share their belief that the project should be scrapped. They also planned to raise a banner and then leave the event. 

But as they approached the venue, they were identified by Walker, the plain clothes official, who called out their names. Asked how he knew their names and faces, Walker said: “OK, well, that might be available through open source on the internet, you never know. I suggest you Google your own name. I’m not going to get into a debate about this.” openDemocracy searched the internet for the campaigners’ names and could find no publicly available photographs or social media footprint for at least one who had been identified by the security guard.

The campaigners were then directed to a gated area where they could protest. 

One of the individuals who was identified, 24-year-old Geeta Wedderburn, later told openDemocracy: “I couldn’t understand how he could be actively seeking me out from amongst a crowd before he’d even met me. I began to feel assaulted.” 

Lucas, 26, a GNDR campaigner who was also identified, said: “We weren’t doing anything illegal. We were just going to an event. I’m a Londoner so I felt I had a right to go there, the State of London Debate, and ask a question about an issue.

“It’s not good that someone has information about you, what you look like, your name and possibly even phone number.” 

Separately, an O2 security guard told them how they “did get some intelligence to say that you guys were coming down to cause disruption within the debate”. When campaigners asked who told him about this, he replied: “I can’t say that but I’m saying that’s what we had.”   

openDemocracy put numerous questions to O2 about this, including where this intelligence was obtained from, but the venue refused to provide any comment.  

Personal information

When the group realised that security officials had gathered information about them, they decided to use information laws to request access to any personal details that the O2 held about them. 

Subject Access Requests (SARs) give individuals a right to access their personal data and be informed if their details have been shared with any other organisations.

Their responses showed that the GLA had passed on their registration details for the event to the O2 venue, which included their full names and email addresses. O2 claimed that it needed to process the personal data “to verify your identity for security purposes and to manage access to specific areas of The O2 before, during, and after the State of London Debate 2022 event”.

The O2’s owner, AEG, also told one activist that their personal data had been passed to ISG Commercial Ltd. But, when contacted by openDemocracy, ISG Commercial claimed this “did not happen”. 

Documents obtained by openDemocracy under the Freedom of Information Act also revealed an email sent between the GLA’s events and security teams. “O2’s security intelligence unit is extremely good and effective, and I saw no reason not to listen to the intelligence being filtered through on the night,” it said. “I believe they successfully prevented a protest within the venue which could have stopped the SOLD [State of London Debate] meeting unnecessarily.”

It continued: “In 2019, we did have protests at the SOLD as a direct result of allowing groups into the venue who were set on disrupting proceedings, we did not want a reoccurrence of that in 2022.”

But Lucas claims the GNDR campaigners were not there to cause disruption: “It wasn't necessarily to stop [the event], it was just to make a point about an issue.

“As this is the State of London Debate, we felt it was relevant to go there and raise the issue which quite a lot of people have been campaigning against – the Silvertown Tunnel. So it’s not like something new.”

Wedderburn said: “I didn’t want to attend the debate just to court controversy or be disruptive. I genuinely wanted to understand the policy justification for this damaging project.”

The banner

Just before the event began, the campaign group sewed a banner into a coat, and organised themselves through private WhatsApp groups and a Zoom meeting, as well as using a private Google document.

Speaking to openDemocracy, one of the campaigners also claimed that the man now identified as Walker said: “We know that you’re here to disrupt the event – we know about the banner inside the coat.” Similarly, the email between GLA officials states: “Most of the information I was made aware of on the night relat[ed] to the potential for protesters with the specific intention of disrupting a lawful meeting e.g. secreting banners on their person.”

But the campaigner told openDemocracy that the hidden banner “was something that had been mentioned on a Zoom call and in the Google doc. No one else knew about it.” 

Prior to the event, an organiser noticed that, out of the blue, some older people were joining the WhatsApp group that had been intended for a group of young campaigners. Details of the WhatsApp group had accidentally been made public, so another, more private group, was quickly created. 

The GLA told openDemocracy it was not aware of any infiltration, while ISG Commercial said it did not carry out the activity, if it did happen. The O2 refused to comment. 

Crackdowns and spying

The news comes as the UK government is seeking more powers to crack down on protests. Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak announced he would broaden the definition of “serious disruption” to give police more freedom to intervene and stop “disruptive” protests. 

Meanwhile, oil companies and private intelligence firms have developed sophisticated snooping operations to gather intelligence about campaigners. In 2021, openDemocracy revealed how BP spent years spying on peaceful climate activists, including collecting CCTV images and hiring a private intelligence firm set up by a former MI6 agent. 

Caroline Russell, a Green Party member of the GLA, said that questions remain about the identification of campaigners at the O2 event last year. 

“Were these committed young people denied entry for security reasons or political reasons, due to the fact they have often challenged Labour politicians for their dismal climate record?” she said. “This is an important distinction and not clear at this stage. This is also why hastily drawn-up laws on protest are a bad idea and hinder genuine scrutiny.”

Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch, said: “The O2 must come clean about any snooping on campaigners by these private security units immediately.”

The GLA has recently been under the spotlight for signing a contract with Welund, a private intelligence firm, although there is no suggestion that the firm was involved with the State of London Debate. 

A spokesperson for the GLA said: “The GLA works closely with the venue to ensure the free, ticketed event is safe and secure. At last year’s debate, entry was refused to a small number of campaigners believed to be planning to disrupt the event.”

ISG Commercial told openDemocracy it is “entirely false” to suggest it spied on GNDR campaigners.

*This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu

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