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British MPs urge privacy watchdog to investigate BP for ‘political spying’

Oil giant’s actions branded ‘shocking and intrusive’ after openDemocracy revealed it paid a spy firm to snoop on peaceful climate activists

Adam Bychawski
26 October 2021, 1.14pm
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called on the Information Commissioner’s Office to ‘urgently investigate’
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

MPs have called for a probe into BP’s political spying, after an openDemocracy investigation found that the oil giant has spent years monitoring peaceful climate campaigners.

BP hired a private intelligence firm set up by a former MI6 agent to keep tabs on its critics. It also shared information with public institutions, including the British Museum and Warwick University, where one campaigner was targeted with “very discreet security”.

Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, described the revelations as a “deeply disturbing case of political spying” and urged the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to “urgently investigate”.

Labour MP Matthew Pennycook, the shadow climate change minister, today said: “BP need to stop funding climate surveillance activities and start focusing all their efforts on what more they need to do as a company to make themselves fully compliant with the Paris Agreement.”

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And the Liberal Democrats’ climate spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse, told openDemocracy that BP’s actions were “shocking and intrusive”.

“People have a right to demonstrate peacefully and it’s essential that fossil fuel companies are held to account,” she added.

The company’s targets include Chris Garrard, a classical music composer with a doctorate from Oxford University. Garrard works with the Art Not Oil group, campaigning against BP’s decades-long sponsorship of the British Museum.

Over several years, BP gathered personal details about Garrard – including a CCTV image of him waiting at a London train station in 2015, when he attended the oil giant’s annual general meeting.

A grainy CCTV photo of Chris Garrard on a platform at a station with two other people
CCTV image held by BP, showing Chris Garrard at a train station in 2015

The oil company also hired a controversial spy firm, Welund, to provide regular email updates about Garrard, including details about his social media activity. This continued between at least July 2019 and January of this year.

Separately, Garrard was also flagged as an “anti-BP activist” by British Museum staff after he sent a number of Freedom of Information requests asking about its relationship with BP. But there is no evidence that Welund’s updates were shared with the British Museum.

Transparency campaigners said the comments were a breach of Freedom of Information guidelines, which state that the identity of the requester should be irrelevant.

An ICO spokesperson said: “Organisations must use people’s data lawfully, fairly and transparently, and be clear, open and honest about how and why they use their personal data.”

BP need to stop funding climate surveillance activities and start focusing on [...] the Paris Agreement

openDemocracy’s investigation also revealed that BP snooped on a student campaigner, who wanted to use the company’s archive, housed at the University of Warwick.

Connor Woodman was identified from Facebook photos and monitored for several months in 2015.

The university requested security during his visits to the archive, saying: “Low-key, no high-viz. Think [a security staff member] should sit inside the BP archive… I can see [Woodman] videoing them and asking for comment and then claiming he is being monitored and what are we hiding.”

They added: “Delicate and very discreet security only please.”

A BP spokesperson said: “BP events have seen legitimate protests over many years, but they have also been targeted by more disruptive and sometimes potentially dangerous actions. We support people’s right to demonstrate peacefully but have a responsibility for the safety and security of those at our events and it is important to understand any risks.

They added: “We have used the risk consultancy Welund to monitor and review material in the public domain such as social media posts that could help us manage these and other risks.”

Welund did not respond to questions from openDemocracy.

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