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Report: Impacts of surveillance on contemporary British activism

St Andrews University and openDemocracy interviewed 25 activists, and surveyed more than a hundred, about the impacts of surveillance on activism in the UK. Here are our findings.

By Ministry of Defence - http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/, OGL  

Introduction

This report details the findings of an exploratory research project funded by a Carnegie Trust research incentive grant and by the Russell Trust. The aim of the project was to examine how concerns about surveillance have impacted on activists in progressive-left causes in the UK. The project was originally inspired by a question which Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Rights Group asked Adam Ramsay of openDemocracy – one of the co-authors of this report, about whether activists in the UK had changed their practices since the Snowden Revelations in 2013.

The research plan we developed envisaged an exploratory, mixed methods study based on a qualitative, inductive approach. Our study drew on three main sources of data, in addition to the available secondary literature. Between September and November 2015, using snowball sampling, we conducted 25 semi-structured interviews with political activists, all of whom had significant experience in forms of civil disobedience or direct action. In keeping with the increasing tendency for activists to move fluidly between congruent causes,[1] the interviewees had been involved in a broad cross section of different ‘progressive’ campaigns and movements, including climate change, anti-austerity and tax justice, radical Scottish independence, anti-nuclear, anti-arms trade, free Tibet and Palestine solidarity.

In order to obtain a broader set of views, we also created a survey, which we disseminated via the interviewees and via social media. The hundred responses we received provided useful additional background information, which supported, developed and in some cases seemed to challenge what we heard from the interviewees.

Finally, in December 2015, in partnership with Open Rights Group, we held a workshop in London. Following a largely open seminar format, this brought together leading academics, digital rights NGOs and activists to brainstorm and share insights into the intersecting issues of surveillance, activism and digital rights.

Findings

When we began planning the research for this report, we fully expected to find a British direct action culture which had internalised the lessons of the Snowden leaks and the surveillance debate they triggered. One of the co-authors had personal memories of using the secure encrypted organising platform Crabgrass in the context of anti-austerity campaigning in 2011.[2] It seemed likely that in the years since then, left wing activists would have found newer and more sophisticated tools, perhaps forging links with technologically sophisticated ‘hacktivists’ and digital rights campaigners in the process.

What we found in the testimony of our informants was in fact very nearly the opposite of this. In sum:

  • - The Snowden revelations have had only a modest impact on activists’ attitudes to security.
  • - While there has been some diffusion of communications tools designed to protect online privacy, activists’ approach to information security is often rather low tech. Activists’ interest in surveillance and information security tends to be quite narrowly focused on surveillance practices they have directly witnessed and encountered.
  • - In particular, the ‘undercover cops’ scandal had a significant impact on the climate change movement and associated areas of activism.
  • - Faced with increased surveillance challenges, activists have not always adapted successfully. Lack of trusted communications tools has at times made direct action impossible to organise.
  • Reactions to the Snowden leaks

Since they began to be released in 2013, the documents published by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revolutionised our understanding of what British as well as American ’signals intelligence’ agencies can do, and what they are prepared to do. Documents relating to programmes led by GCHQ such as ‘Tempora’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Optic Nerve’ read like the stuff of dystopian science fiction.[3]

The leaks have triggered significant debate worldwide, and in the UK they have helped to precipitate a wide-ranging review of surveillance legislation.[4] At least in principle, this debate has informed the drafting of the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill.[5] But the Bill has itself been highly controversial, particularly on account of provisions such as those mandating the retention of Internet users’ browsing records.[6] These and other points of concern in the bill have led its critics to fear that it ultimately heralds the transformation of the UK into a surveillance state.[7]

There is still a widespread perception that the British public - perhaps more than the US public – remain rather trusting and apathetic on issues of surveillance, despite these developments.[8] However, it is far from clear that this is the case. For example, opinion polling data pulled together in a report published last year by Cardiff’s Digital Citizenship and Society Project shows that the British public has in fact been consistently concerned about surveillance, even if this is not always fully reflected in the urgency of public debate.[9]

The activists we spoke to did indeed believe that there was a troubling disconnect between their own attitudes to surveillance, and the attitudes and norms of the wider public.  Broadly speaking, they took the view that state surveillance is extensive and problematically so. In the matter-of-fact words of one, ‘the UK is a surveillance state’. But nearly all agreed - as much because of as in spite of this - that the Snowden revelations had in themselves had only a modest impact on their own perceptions. Meanwhile, changes to British surveillance legislation had seemingly had very little impact at all.

In our survey, slightly more respondents said they were shocked by the Snowden leaks (46%) than said they weren’t (42%). 50% reported that they had, as a result of the revelations, become more cautious about the information they shared electronically with others, and 57% were more worried about government agencies’ surveillance. Most, though, did not believe that the impact on activism had been significant, with a quarter reporting a ‘considerable’ or ’significant’ effect on their activism resulting from concerns about surveillance, while 60% maintained that there had been no such effect.

At least in term of the emotional reaction they had created, most of the interviewees were of the opinion that the Snowden leaks had not been particularly shocking to activist communities. But they offered a variety of distinguishable reasons for this.

For some, the Snowden leaks were seen as primarily a matter for a general public that had previously seen itself as safe from spying, as opposed to activists who had in any case long accustomed themselves to the idea.

…my feeling is that people said “well yeah, we know”  so perhaps I exaggerate but I’m not really aware of any group I’ve been          involved in being particularly affected by the Edward Snowden revelations

The revelations could even be seen as comforting, in so far as they promised to make the ‘paranoid’ views already held by activists more mainstream. 

When all the Ed Snowden stuff came out it was nice in a way that some non-activisty people who always said we were ridiculously paranoid were like “ah, yeah, sorry”… Obviously the Snowden stuff was a surprise to everyone, but I think it was less of a surprise to lots of us than it was to the wider public.

For others of those we spoke to, though, reactions to the Snowden leaks did not apparently set them far apart from the likely reaction of many members of the wider public. For them, the forms of surveillance revealed by the leaks simply felt remote and difficult to engage with. One contrasted ‘the relative abstraction of big data’, the more immediately ‘personal’ impact of other forms of surveillance such as spying by undercover police officers. Others saw it not so much in terms of operational security, as a political cause somewhat remote from the concerns of their own protest subculture.

 I don’t really hear direct action people talking about this. It’s something I hear, from, like, people who are into wiki campaigning stuff like Wikileaks and ‘No2ID’, and collect information type campaigns. Like I want to say campaigns that relate to information, not campaigns that inform.

At the workshop, a key issue raised was the apparent gap between activists in the specific areas of privacy and digital rights campaigning against surveillance, and activists in movements using direct action who were experiencing surveillance. This gap was clearly in evidence in the testimony we collected:

It’s just occurred to me that none of us have ever actually taken action against the people who are surveilling us, or done anything about the surveillance issue. We’ve just taken it on board that we have to be more secretive. There’s a  huge         degree of separation between people who are left wing activists and the rest of the world… so there is already that separation and we are accepting more separation; accepting the fact that we need to be more secretive and look for channels of communication that will help keep us and our movement going, instead of saying “well, actually this is a human right that we need to fight for.”

 A further area of difference was between those who viewed news of mass electronic surveillance programmes fatalistically, and those who believed that they did not have to be overly concerned on the grounds that existing security precautions were already more than adequate to counter the sorts of information gathering the leaks revealed.

For one…

Edward Snowden was kind of liberatory because it just finally confirmed everything that we thought we knew. And for lot of people, certainly for me it’s like “Great, I can just get on with it now, because we know everything is being recorded. And why should we just give a shit any longer?” We’ve just got to be above ground.

But another insisted that:

 …it [i.e. the Snowden leaks] was vindication of the sort of awareness about online activity  that  we’d had… groups I was in… would  organise by email list and by secure forum and even then we would keep lots of things off those two things if you wanted to keep them really secret. That I felt was a healthy level of security culture. And that they can read your emails and they can you know, they can look at everything you put on Facebook and things. There’s not bugs in every watch. They can’t bug your conversation through a satellite. So it was sort of like, the level of security that most people I know use was seemed to be adequate to beat the level of intelligence gathering the state seems to use. It was just total vindication of the methods that we were using to try and keep things secret.

 While these are – at least on the surface – very different assessments, they have one thing in common: in neither case do the activists in question view the Snowden leaks as particularly influential on their attitude to surveillance and security. So what did shape our activists’ perspectives?

Emergence of security consciousness

The reactions to mass surveillance as reported in the Snowden leaks seem to be indicative of a wider tendency. The activists who contributed to this study did not think that online and digital information security was unimportant in a general sense. But with rare, notable exceptions they admitted to having only rather limited knowledge of the subject. In the survey, 61% claimed they had ‘weak’ or ‘very weak’ understanding of UK surveillance laws, while 63% said that they had ‘weak’ or ‘very weak’ knowledge of counter-surveillance techniques. Most agreed that their groups[10] spent too little time on counter-surveillance.

We have already seen how the interviewees expressed a variety of views as to the adequacy of the measures their groups had taken to protect their online and telecommunications security. Sometimes their responses also seemed to unintentionally reveal an apparently limited conception of the possibilities of online surveillance. For example, some suggested that an appropriate - and perhaps even sufficient - response to the Snowden revelations would be to cease to participate in social networks like Facebook under one’s real name, or to avoid using mobile phones for sensitive communications. While these remarks were made off the cuff, many interviewees appeared to have a rather sketchy and approximate understanding of the basic mechanics of internet surveillance and online anonymity.

Similarly, despite a solitary reference to ‘big data’ (quoted above), nearly everything the activists had to say about monitoring of electronic information - whether known or speculated about - seemed to assume human analysts actively examining ‘content’: emails, text messages, forum posts, phone conversations. One reference was made to a practice involving mobile phones which could be interpreted as indicating sensitivity to monitoring of mobile phone location data.  (In this example, instead of taking batteries out of phones, the phones were given to one activist to walk around with). Otherwise, issues that are of major concern in the wider surveillance debate – such as algorithmic sorting of data collected in bulk, or use of metadata to draw detailed inferences about individuals’ behaviour and associations - simply didn’t come up.[11]

Interestingly, the one programme mentioned in the Snowden leaks which seemed to have attracted serious interest was JTRIG, the Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group, a British unit within GCHQ specialising in “online covert action” including hacking, propaganda, misinformation and ‘dirty tricks’ against targets known to include the Taliban, Iran and ‘hacktivists’.[12] Unlike other, perhaps ultimately more insidious forms of surveillance, news of this programme appeared to resonate with activists’ direct experiences, such as the sudden appearance of disruptive trolls in online discussions.

This fits with the overall pattern we observed whereby activists’ interest in surveillance is largely conditioned by the specific experiences of groups and individuals, and by the immediate need to perform successful acts of protest. Encounters with physical surveillance by police forward intelligence teams had clearly made a deep impression.[13] So too had incidents in which police had seized hardware from activists, or confronted them directly with evidence taken from intercepted communications. Forms of surveillance which can generally only be known about only at second remove, and the effects of which are unlikely to be readily attributable at the level of particular actions, simply didn’t register as strongly.

In the survey responses, physical surveillance was (perhaps almost by definition) by far the form of surveillance with which activists were most personally familiar, with 63% having experienced it directly, while 75% said that their group had. Over half had suspected at some point that a group member might be an undercover agent (although under 20% believed they or their group had actually encountered one). Nearly half took electronic equipment into consideration when holding a group meeting.

In the interviews, it soon became clear that it is usually impossible to separate the evolution of activists’ security-consciousness from their personal narratives of engagement. Again and again, interviewees described a gradual process of becoming aware of security issues which was shaped by specific events and encounters. Adoption of particular counter-surveillance strategies seemed to be ‘path dependent’ to use the social science jargon, to the extent that it depended very much on specific starting points and particular experiences thereafter. 

Some interviewees had had early exposure to the idea of state and police surveillance.

I was actually brought up in an activist family… so our phone was tapped from when I was a kid, and that was just pretty normal… you could hear them click in and click out and we knew that there was a certain amount of time, I think it was thirty seconds, that they could listen in for. And so me and my little sister used to take the piss, so we would say key words that we knew that they would click back in for, we would be like “Get the bombs! All the bombs!”… I think it was quite playful in the early 1990s and 2000s. It was quite a playful thing. Talking to older peace activists, they’d get walkie talkies and they’d change frequency every few hours, because they knew the police could tap into the frequency.

Others had early exposure through working with groups which, for different reasons, were more than usually security conscious. One had lived for a period in Iran, and had experience of being followed by secret agents. Another had started out in the Free Tibet movement. Both experiences had in these cases had the effect of making heightened concerns over surveillance seem natural.

In the Free Tibet context, for example, a culture of security apparently emerged which was sustained by numerous stories and anecdotes about disturbing breaches of security. One recounted, for example, an inexperienced member who, not knowing any better, had kept his mobile phone on at a meeting in the Free Tibet central office in London. On returning home, he was said to have found the entire meeting recorded onto his own answerphone - something assumed by the Free Tibet activists to be an intentional gesture of intimidation by Chinese intelligence.

Another mediating factor appears to be the role of large organisations. As a result of various data breaches, such as when it was hacked by a private intelligence company contracted by energy supplier EDF,[14] Greenpeace has rolled out much more rigorous information security procedures across the organisation, normalising the use of encrypted email and ToR, a programme which enables anonymous browsing and other online interactions by bouncing requests through encrypted relays, thereby concealing the user’s IP address.

Those who had not been primed by significant formative experiences sometimes recalled finding it difficult to take surveillance concerns seriously to begin with. Talk about government spying, when they first encountered it, felt “fake”, “paranoid” or “a load of nonsense”, or at least as something unlikely to be relevant to the sort of activities they were getting involved in.

Again, just as some contexts and movements served to sensitise people to the possibility of government spying, other movements were said to influence in the opposite direction. According to an interviewee who had been active in a Christian movement, Christian activists were known for being more open and trusting than those with other ideological backgrounds.

Another factor identified was what was seen as a ‘generational’ shift in favour of openness. Interviewees who had been engaged in direct action in the context of the Scottish Radical Independence movement, for example, suggested that this mobilisation brought on stream an intake of young people who by default were much more inclined towards openness that was the norm for their older counterparts.

…a really good illustration of that [generational shift] was…with this big YES banner drop thing, where they dropped this big banner that just said YES off the crags on some buildings in Edinburgh. A few people I knew who were involved were sort of old hand anarchists and had been very careful about how they had organised their involvement in it, in terms of what they had said on text messages and things like that. And they’d also got phone numbers of solicitors on their arms. And then they got to the place where we were supposed to be meeting to plan it, and it was just in a Home Base car park, with people driving back and forth, getting all the stuff out of this van, talking openly in this car park and inviting strangers to just of kind of get involved when they were walking past doing their shopping. They were totally baffled by people’s complete lack of concern about surveillance or being stopped basically. And that was quite interesting, to see that difference between old hands and new people.

Typically, the process of “gradual growing awareness” of the real likelihood that state agents were spying on them began with enculturation into existing security practices such as the removal of batteries from mobile phones at meetings, or speculation about the possibility of police informants in the group. These initial experiences produced a variety of reported reactions. Interviewees spoke of the elation of feeling like ‘I was in my own Bond film’, or describing it as ‘a badge of honour that the police knew who I was’; or, conversely, of feeling exasperated that fellow activists had ‘confused low level civil disobedience with being in a James Bond film’. Both reactions speak of the inherent difficulty activists face in making informed calculations about risk under such inherently uncertain conditions.

As activists became more deeply engaged, uncomfortable or ‘spooky’ experiences would gradually build into a more personalised narrative of encounters with surveillance as a reality.

I very distinctly remember a climate camp in 2000…2006 at Heathrow, and you were just aware that there was plain clothes cops on the site and come to meetings and things and you just found yourself wondering who it was.

The earliest unmistakable manifestation is, unsurprisingly, likely to be ‘physical surveillance’ by the police. In the survey, 75% reported that they or a member of their group had experienced physical surveillance of some kind. Among the interviewees, accounts of physical surveillance also predominated, and played an important role in making the issue of surveillance real in their minds. The following account describes an early experience.

…when I was at university in the lead up to the G8 protests, the level of intelligence gathering from the police in sort of using forward intelligence teams. They would turn up at every protest we had but they would also turn up at things, they would sort of, you know, turn up when you were having a stall at university, or they were around more than when they were necessary. So it wasn’t well, like they were there to watch out in case you broke the law, it was — they were there quite clearly there to intimidate and let you know that they were always watching.

An important point to bring up at this stage is the varying possible interpretations of the meaning of police behaviour. A theme encountered in several interviews was the idea that police surveillance of this sort is primarily disruptive and deterrent in its aims, despite its ostensibly intelligence gathering function. But the reverse may also be considered to be true. For example, the mass arrest that pre-empted the occupation of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, given that the very number of arrestees and the moment of the arrests appeared to limit the likelihood of a successful prosecution, was interpreted in one account as evidence of arrest being used primarily for purposes of information gathering. Indeed, such anxiety-inspiring ambiguities are clearly central to the experience of developing security-consciousness.

…it’s when it gets a bit spooky that you suddenly — that you start to be more worried about how, how much information the police have on you. And when you don’t have control over it or when, when you’d have control over when you were at a protest and you know, you were in that confrontation and then you go home and you’re not doing that, but they - the police are still after you still sort of care.

This quotation also illustrates another key problem in maintaining security within decentralised movements: people do not usually become involved in political protest with the express intention, from the outset, of breaking the law. They therefore do not have the same incentive at the outset to limit the information police can gather on them that they will later acquire.

Even when these ‘spooky’ or surprising things do begin to happen to individuals, there may still be considerable room to question the significance of what has happened.

…Any time we get close to an action, especially a big thing, our phones get weird. I don’t know. You think for a while it’s just paranoia. But, like, a phone that’s new, that’s perfectly fine all the time, three days before an action, three days before a camp, three days before something happens, your phone starts crackling and making weird noises and sending texts to people that you sent three years ago to other people. It’s either something that makes people super-paranoid or just like ‘Oh yes! Well, they’re watching that one. Ah, thank goodness, I am vaguely important.’

Interviewees described police turning up in surprising numbers at events which were either supposed to be secret, or which did not involve any controversial actions. One activist, for example, had organised an alternative history tour of the City of London. The places where the group would be stopping had not been announced in advance, but there turned out to be a police presence at every one. Another had taken a local community group for a walk and picnic at the site of a proposed coal mine. Despite the site being nothing more than a field at the time…

…between 8 and 10 in total police were gathering there, and they had long lens cameras. You know, they’ve got my phone. They know who I am. I’m talking to the leader of the community council and they know who he is. And there are these cops — there was a van of riot cops that turned up, but the community council said it — someone at the council said it was bit over the top and so the police eventually sent them away. But literally all we were doing is we were having tea and cake. We’re talk — you know, activists who campaign against coal and communities that’s affected by coal and we’re going to have a conversation and then we walked and looked at some farmland. But that was like an open thing. We’d publicised that, we had put posters up. They knew about that.

Were police merely acting on publicly available information, or were they – as seems likely in this instance - also drawing on intelligence about the activist organising the community event?

Undercover cops

In contrast to the relative indifference to the Snowden revelations, we were struck by the significance attributed to the undercover cops scandal. This began in 2010 with the discovery that a well-known figure in the environmental direct action movement, Mark Stone, was in fact an undercover police infiltrator named Mark Kennedy.[15] Kennedy had spent years becoming a trusted member of the inner circle of British environmental direct action, in the course of which he had at least two (very likely many more) sexual relationships with activists, as well as cultivating numerous close friendships.

The personal impact on those immediately affected, as reported to us, was understandably and unsurprisingly severe. Although none of the interviewees had personally known Mark Kennedy, they were well aware of the emotional devastation that had resulted from his being uncovered. A former girlfriend of Stone’s felt, in the words of one of our interviewees, “Like she had been raped by the state”.

Or again…

[The impact was h]uge. I think they took people out. I think there’s a whole group of people who just aren’t involved with anything anymore. Such was trust damaged through that whole process. I don’t know how many it is. Could be ten, could be forty, somewhere around there…some of them it’s severe mental health problems. Some of the women who he had relationships with and some of them it’s just an absolute exhaustion with having gone through that whole process. They’re just not up for putting them —even the potential of putting themselves through something like that. And we’ve had some nasty experiences with people breaking down when they felt security’s being compromised. And I’m sure that partly comes out of Mark Kennedy, Mark Stone thing. Huge amounts of anger towards government security — just lack of trust, kind of increase that lack of trust.

Our interest in this study was less in the direct impacts on individual mental health mentioned here, but rather on possible wider effects, such as the ‘lack of trust’ identified here. For the climate change movement, the outing of Mark Kennedy coincided with a slump in direct action, albeit one which probably had multiple causes, not least the anticlimactic debacle of the Copenhagen climate change conference, on which much of the wider movement had pinned its hopes. For this reason, attributing unambiguous causal significance to undercover cops scandal is difficult, and our interviewees’ comments on the question reflected this.

I guess on a personal level, I do know people who withdrew at that point and who talked about infiltration and Kennedy as one of the things that had really upset them. But I don’t know of anyone who said ‘this is the reason why I’m now disengaging with this, this is the reason why I now feel I don’t want to go to protests’ but it was definitely a, a factor in the mix.

Nonetheless, while it is hard to say for certain that Mark Kennedy was the cause of an absolute decline in environmental direct action, whether in terms of actions carried out, or levels of participation, there seems little doubt that clear impacts were felt within the movement.

…there was quite a witch hunt for about a year and a half after that point. And you know we found four others and we knew there was twenty, at least twenty from the reports. You know, obviously what happened to former partners as well was devastating and you know, some of them have now gripes with the police that can’t — they can’t emotionally get over it and that’s led to different kinds of political action and you know, quite a fragmentation. But, you know, you see shortly after the Mark Stone thing the break down of Climate Camp. There’s certainly a level at which — I’m not saying that was — I would say it was a minor contributing factor whereby certain bonds of trust certainly were broken down. Especially from people from Oxford and Cambridge because we know where that’s where they find recruits

Collapsing trust had two main consequences. Internally, its ‘toxic and insidious’ effects served to poison longstanding friendships in ways which reportedly came close to ripping the movement apart.

For those who remained, it also served to isolate activists from the wider public. Inner circles tightened, as activists began to enquire into the backgrounds of those they took action with, checking out the parents or siblings of their peers. Vigilant about potential infiltrators, some began to fall back on crude stereotypes which, in turn, may have made them seem unwelcoming and paranoid to potential recruits

…it leads to a lot of stereotyping as well…I remember coming out with anti-fracking stuff here in the last few years where you see some burly working-class looking men, two or more of them together. And everybody starts to…whisper to each other “there’s fucking cops here.” And it’s like, they could be trade unionists… the same cliches that make people think of cops apply to most working-class men. And so like these kinds of dynamics — and I’ve seen them, and again it’s hard to know because it’s rare that you actually — people get outted in a very visible way where there’s beyond shadow of a doubt that this is what’s going on here. But yeah, it does create certain kinds of stereotyping. And I think that is a really, really problematic thing for people who do action and want to create a world where we see each other as human beings and not just as the physical traits we might happen to embody. So I think it is definitely a serious impact.

 Or again…

It’s like you sort of think of yourself in those positions. You start to look at the people around you differently. You start to think like “are — is there any way that this person who I’ve gotten along with could be something other than what they seem to be? Am I being suspicious of them because they fit certain descriptions, in which case, am I reinforcing certain negative stereotypes?” It leads to self-doubt and all these cycles that kind of come along with it aren’t the same as the way you respond to, like, x number of people have had their phones tapped, uh or that kind of, that kind of level of thing.

Countermeasures and impacts

As we have argued up to this point, the activists who contributed to this study weren’t naive about surveillance. But they did tend to be focused quite narrowly on a particular set of concerns seen as immediately relevant to performing their actions, and they were somewhat sceptical of speculating more generally on the subject.  Activists engaging in civil disobedience have in fact sought to develop ways of working which try to minimise the need for operational security while encouraging openness where possible, encouraging people to participate without necessarily having to all take elaborate precautions.

Indeed security thinking of enterprises like Climate Camp was specifically premised on the idea that infiltration and surveillance were unavoidable facts of life, and that operating procedures therefore had to rely on keeping as little secret as possible.

…from the start, there was this acknowledgment of ‘we are infiltrated, it’s just a fact’; that anything we put online is being read by somebody; anything we say in an openly advertised meeting is being listened to by somebody; that either there’s a cop in the room or someone who is being put under pressure by the police to feed information… or there would be some sort of listening device outside or in the room. That was built in to the planning of the climate camp from the beginning, in that there was this secret group called the ‘land group’ whose job it was to find the land, who were absolutely secret. No one in the open meetings knew who they were. Only they knew who they were. And it was always a bit of a mystery how this group was selected; but then that’s how it was meant to be. I think it was kind of self-selected, as a group of people who trusted each other, got together and were like ‘well we’ll trust each other, we’re up for this, we know what we’re doing and we’ll be the land group’ and then would communicate with everyone else by passing notes. The idea was that it was up to the rest of the network to trust that group to do the one thing about the climate camp that had to be kept top secret, which was choosing the precise location. So all the network as a whole could decide what the overall target was, whether that was going to be Kings North Power Station or Heathrow Airport or whatever it might be, where exactly the camp appeared, you know on what specific patch of land it would pop up, would be up to that secret group to organise, very secretly, separate from everyone else, in their own way and in their own time.

 The extraordinary level of trust which the climate justice movement’s ‘secret hierarchy’ had been able to acquire meant that it could largely offset the limitations of operational security by mobilising volunteers en masse at a moment’s notice on the basis of very sketchy information. On the eve of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station action at which police, tipped off by infiltrator Mark Kennedy, carried out a mass arrest of 114 activists:

…it’s a sign of the level of strength in the networks at that stage that over a hundred people turned up, you know on that promise, without even knowing what the action was, just like they trusted these networks, they trusted this, this action movement to just come and go ‘right I guess I’ll come and find out’.

Where activist networks find themselves geographically dispersed, and perhaps lacking the momentum described above, secure telecommunications presumably become less dispensable. It is certainly the case that some activists do attempt to use secure encrypted communications tools. We have already encountered a reference to activists using ‘secure online forums’. Specifically, encrypted social networking site ‘crabtree’, encrypted email service ‘riseup’ and phone privacy guard ‘applock’ were mentioned in the interviews, as well as, reportedly, nearly ubiquitous use of ToR in at least some circles.

How widespread take up actually is may be open to question, however. In the survey, 70% assumed that they were under surveillance, and 89% did not think that unencrypted online communications were safe. And yet only 17% said that they habitually used encryption. And this was despite the fact that small but appreciable numbers specifically identified surveillance as a direct problem for activism.  32% believed that surveillance had in some sense obstructed what they were trying to achieve. A fifth said that surveillance concerns had specifically led them to abandon an action, while 17% said that they had changed the type of concerns their group had over the past five years. 21% believed that their group had lost members due to surveillance concerns.

Moreover, according to accounts provided in the interviews, it is unclear that activists are making more use of secure communication tools. On the contrary, there are clear suggestions that trust in such methods is in decline, at least for some. And rather than finding successful workarounds, the resulting communications breakdown can lead at least in some cases to actions ceasing altogether.

…there were a couple within the last eighteen months where online stuff — because you can’t, with jobs you can’t do the traveling, so if you can’t do the traveling and you can’t communicate online then you’re fucked. And we tried things like clean phone networks that you turn on at specific times of day and it just — people can’t — that doesn't work with people’s jobs… another specific example is that I think we used to use Skype a lot to organise and now no-one would ever use Skype for anything remotely confidential after, I think it was a court case in Germany when Skype handed over a load of information. People would have used Riseup email service but now people wouldn’t want to use any email... after one person’s computer got taken by the police after Oxford Airport action.

Seeking any alternative to mobile phone or Internet communications, activists told us they had fallen back on landline based phone trees, on the postal service or, in some cases, proposed actions had simply fallen through. Lack of information security was also seen as having a qualitative impact on political actions, impacting on aspects of planning, as in this account:

…But since then I think I’ve not wanted to use email in that way before direct action and that actually makes it difficult to plan because for me…for me, one of the reasons I get involved with direct action, one of the main reasons, is because of the potential for media interest. And so for me it is really important, usually, depends on the action, but usually, to try and sort out a press release talking about it as soon as it’s happened. And so if you can’t draft a press release and agree on press release in advance, if people say things like “oh well, we’ll just have to agree on a press release after it’s happened,” and then you send a press release out after it’s happened and it’s all too late you know, um, it actually makes it…harder to do, to plan sort of media work around the action.

Or on internal democracy… 

And actually, sometimes I think that has affected how we’ve done it. It’s affected it in terms of making the media work a lot less effective, and sometimes I think if we’d talked about it by email and or phone, if then the police had known about it, if the police had turned up and arrested everybody straight away or whatever, even then we’d have had more effective media coverage than we do if they didn’t know about it but we couldn’t actually talk about how to contact the media. Um, so I think it does — and things would have been a lot better planned sometimes. And also I think there’s been cases I’ve known of where it actually has an undemocratic effect because you can’t talk about it all together, you have one or two people planning all the details and everybody else just has to fit in. So it has the effect of making the planning of the action less democratic.

 Another, somewhat subtler impact, which has also been remarked on in a previous study of American groups, but according to this interviewee extends beyond activist circles seems to relate to the loss of the internet as a space for creative deliberation and archiving of collective memory.

I think there is a general cultural shift, just with digital media, that may be the case among activists: that people just know now that written, anything recordable communication is best avoided in life. If you say anything particularly dangerous you know, just don’t write it down or say it over the phone… people don’t think out loud in email any more.

 

Could activists have obviated some of these problems by investing more time and effort in online security? To some extent, activists’ fatalism seems understandable. Even the most apparently bulletproof system may turn out to have been secretly compromised. And even if it hasn’t been, it is no defence against human infiltration.

What they’ve [activists] got is an understanding that everything, because of GCHQ, is recorded. And almost, in a way, it’s like a “Well, you know. Sod it. We know this now.” You know what I mean? And people have just given up on trying to be secure. A lot of people I know have just given up. And then you’ve got the hard core live on camp types here like, you know. They’re taking — they’re becoming a smaller and smaller minority because just no one can organise without this technology now. So we just make the compromise and say “Well at least we know now for sure. We’re not being paranoiac that everything’s being recorded and you know, we’re just going to have to live with that.

As the confidence of seasoned activists in their ability to organise secretly is seemingly eroded, new recruits are described as ever more wedded to online mobilisation strategies premised on open sharing of information.

[Today] there’s no pretense of anonymity. People are really happy to go on Facebook and organise things. The groups I was in stuck to email lists and closed forums on secure services, but it’s the way we organised online. And even that some people weren’t quite comfortable with. If there was anything you wanted to keep secret you just didn’t put it on the internet; it didn’t go in an email, it didn’t go on a forum, um, and you’d just communicate face to face. Whereas now, if people organise a protest they’ll set up a Facebook group and that will be the entire organisational platform - a Facebook group or a hashtag. People don’t organise from email lists anymore. Even though email lists were not particularly secure. It would at least, you know — the police can just go look in the Facebook group and there’s everyone saying “oh let’s go do this, let’s do this.”

Where is all this leading? One account, intriguingly seemed to point towards the emergence of a new paradigm premised on even greater reliance on openness, mass action and rapidity.

…some of the, actually, most successful direct actions I’ve been involved with, um, have gone completely the opposite way, I mean totally open about what’s going on. And somehow by just sheer numbers of people or police indifference or whatever, managed to pull something off. Like, for example, uh, blockading Faslane this year the police were incredibly attentive and the date was totally public and had been six months or something like that. And even the night before people were making very specific plans. People were taking like selfies of themselves with lock on shoes and stuff like that. I’ve never seen anything like that before, the brazenness of it. So that was totally different to my past experiences of being very careful about what you say and do online and that kind of thing.

Whether action of this kind represents a genuinely new approach, perhaps in line with the scholarly theory of ‘connective action’, or simply a new iteration in the cycle of ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ openness, arrests and intimidation followed by increased attempts at operational security remains to be seen.  

Conclusion

It is important to stress that the infiltration and disruption experienced by contemporary protest movements in the UK is not a new phenomenon. The use of wire-tapping, undercover agents and the like has a long pedigree in the UK, although the principal targets have shifted over time. Indeed, an interesting point raised at our workshop was the idea that the British state’s periodic shifts of security focus may in themselves have inhibited the emergence of a robust security culture in different dissident milieus. More generally, the use of methods of this sort is widely attested in other democratic and ostensibly liberal states in both Europe and the US.

This is not a justification of these practices. It is now very clear that intelligence gathering on peaceful protest groups in the UK has often been clearly disproportionate and in many cases very probably illegal. These judgments are, however, beyond the immediate scope of this report.

Moving away from idealised notions of how democratic states work, we can see the struggles between protest movements and the state (as well as other so-called ‘polity members’) in terms of an ongoing arms race in which the state seeks by a variety of means, some above board, and others clearly less so, to repress radical protest, while protestors in turn seek to challenge the state, sometimes resorting to practices of civil disobedience or direct action which involve breaking the law and, to that extent, understandably attracting the attention of law enforcement.

The real question that arises in considering the impact of the state’s contemporary surveillance capabilities and practices is not so much whether the state does spy on activists, or even whether it can be relied on not to overstep clear legal and moral limits in doing so. The question is whether activists are able to adapt as the state adapts and, in doing so, to keep open a space for radical protest within the overall political ecosystem.

We believe that the research reported in this paper raises troubling questions as to whether this is the case. While protest and direct action in the UK is far from dead (the recent dramatic revival of direct action against climate change is a case in point), it appears that activists are continuing to rely on tried and tested methods of organisation which, while potentially very effective, are not designed to counteract forms of surveillance and disruption which are likely to become increasingly routine parts of the state toolkit as we move deeper into the information age.

 


[1] Della Porta, D. (2007). The Global Justice Movement. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

[2] Tactical Technology Collective - groups - Crabgrass. (2016). We.riseup.net. Retrieved May 7, 2016, from <https://we.riseup.net/tacticaltech>

[3] Ball, J. & Ackerman, S. (2014). Optic Nerve: Millions of yahoo webcam images intercepted by GCHQ. The Guardian. McAskill, E., Borger, J., Hopkins, N., Davies, N., & Ball, J. (2013). GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world's communications. The Guardian,

http://www.dcssproject.net/tempora/https://theintercept.com/document/2015/09/25/broadcast-analysis/; Martin, A. (2015). Karma Police: GCHQ spies on every web user ever. The Register.

[4] Anderson QC, D. (2015). A Question of Trust: Report of the Investigatory Powers Review. Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

[5] Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill,. (2016). Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. London: HM Stationery Office. Retrieved May 8, 2016, from <http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201516/jtselect/jtinvpowers/93/93.pdf>

[6] Bowcott, O. (2016). Investigatory powers bill not fit for purpose say 200 senior lawyers. The Guardian.

[7] Rt Hon David Davis MP » David Davis calls for an inquiry into the surveillance state. (2016). Daviddavismp.com. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from <http://www.daviddavismp.com/david-davis-calls-for-an-inquiry-into-the-surveillance-state/>

[8] Barnett, A. (2016). Surveillance, the British and US debates compared. openDemocracy. Retrieved May 8, 2016, from <https://www.opendemocracy.net/anthony-barnett/surveillance-british-and-us-debates-compared>

[9] Bakir, V., Cable, J., Dencik, L., Hintz, A., & McStay, A. (2015). Public Feeling on Privacy, Security and Surveillance. Cardiff: Bangor University, Cardiff University. Retrieved May 8, 2016, from <https://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/dcssproject/files/2015/11/Public-Feeling-on-Privacy-Security-Surveillance-DATAPSST-DCSS-Nov2015.pdf>

[10] In the questionnaire, activists were asked at an early stage to identify a primary ‘group’, which served as the subject of some of the subsequent questions. This was defined to include loose affinity groups and networks as well as formal organisations. 

[11] For an accessible overview of these issues, see Schneier, B. (2015). Data and Goliath. New York: W.W. Norton.

[12] The Intercept. (2016). The Intercept. Retrieved May 8, 2016, from <https://theintercept.com/document/2015/06/22/behavioural-science-support-jtrig/>

[13] Police use of Forward Intelligence Teams has led to the creation of a specific organisation, Fitwatch, to campaign against them and offer activists advice on how to avoid being incriminated by them. http://www.fitwatch.org.uk/

[14] EDF was ultimately cleared of direct involvement, on the grounds that it was not fully aware of the actions of the private security firm it hired. Boxell, J. (2013). Court clears EDF of Greenpeace Hacking. Financial Times.

[15] Evans, R. & Lewis, P. (2013). Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police. London: Guardian-Faber.

About the authors

Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer in International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews.

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay.

Sarah Marsden is a lecturer in radicalisation and protest in a digital age at the University of Lancaster.


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