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Do you know who's watching you?

Britain now has more surveillance than any other Western country, with worrying implications for anyone who might want to question the authorities.

Image: Blakespot, some rights reserved.

The power of the digital realm has been demonstrated in recent months like never before. Hacking and cyberwars dominating geopolitics; algorithms and ‘filter bubbles’ supposedly influencing elections; increased anxiety around the ‘internet of things’. So when leaked emails revealed that US police forces keep tabs on Black Lives Matter protesters with the help of a private company data-mining social media sites, was it so surprising? 

We know that the rich online map of our lives and activities is a dream tool for governments and companies seeking to quell protest and resistance. And yet in the UK, we’ve now granted authorities unprecedented spying powers. 

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As the Investigatory Powers Bill came to the House of Lords last autumn, having already breezed through the Commons. NGO Privacy International warned in a Lords briefing: “We are on the brink of introducing the most pervasive and intrusive surveillance legislation of any democratic country in the world.” The peers were apparently unperturbed by this, and the bill passed its final reading, rather fittingly, on 31 October. 

And yet as we veer down this worrying path, discussion in the public sphere has been minimal; a recent poll found that 72 per cent knew nothing about the legislation. Media coverage has been largely restricted to a handful of newspapers and blogs, and focused more on the more abstract principles of civil liberties and the right to privacy. 

What’s barely been discussed at all is the likely impact on the right to protest. For a state that’s always kept a close eye on its dissenters, the power to intercept communications in bulk, rather than on a case-by-case basis, is no doubt a tempting prospect. But the UK and US security services have been doing this for years anyway, as Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. The IP Act simply legalises this mass surveillance. 

However, the act also grants sweeping new powers for the police to hack devices, for authorities to demand access to vast private- and public-sector databases, and for the retention of browsing histories for 12 months (though this latter power has been partially put on hold after a European Court of Justice ruling). The potential for abuse and arbitrary targeting is huge. 

Anyone familiar with the way police and authorities treat protesters in the UK will be seriously worried about these provisions. But in my experience, most people just aren’t aware of what can happen to you if you join a direct action group, or go on a demonstration; they’re surprised and shocked to learn that you can be labelled a ‘domestic extremist’, photographed and questioned, followed for months or even years – without ever being convicted of a crime. 

Ongoing scandals such as undercover policing and blacklisting only brought to light what many activists knew or at least suspected: that the state’s law enforcement bodies not only gather detailed information on activists through intrusive surveillance, but also lie about police injuries, turn a blind eye to police violence and abuse, and generally is willing to ruin the lives of people who have not actually committed any crime. 

The ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ brigade would argue that if you are not one of these wild protester types, you needn’t worry about these new powers. But the blacklisting scandal shows that you don’t have to take to the streets for the state or companies to spy on you – just get elected as a shop steward, or stick up for colleagues against management. Attend a union meeting, or try to make conditions at work safer. These actions were what caused thousands to be dubbed ‘troublemakers’ by the blacklisters, in a long saga that saw construction workers barred from employment for years, often with terrible personal consequences. They had no idea their names their names were on the secret files held in a Droitwitch office – and often blamed themselves for the years of unemployment during a construction boom. Some blacklisted workers committed suicide

Files on over 3,200 people, held by blacklisting firm the Consulting Association, were discovered in the raid – among these, hundreds of index cards on activists. Incredibly, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) left the vast majority of files untouched; these were subsequently destroyed, so we’ll never know all the names. Crucially though, the Consulting Association’s CEO Ian Kerr confirmed that construction companies met with an officer from the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, and discussed the codes used to classify activists on the blacklist. During an employment tribunal in 2012, ICO investigations manager David Clancy confirmed what many had long suspected – that in his view, some of the information held on the files “could only be supplied by the police or the security services”.  

Similarly, the police have long maintained their own databases on thousands of politically active people – particularly environmental activists but stretching to politicians and journalists too. Such covert surveillance and intelligence-gathering has gone hand in hand with the more obvious tactics used against protesters in recent years: the kettling, stop-and-search, aggressive filming and outright violence which have landed the police in such trouble. The notorious Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was set up in 1968 to infiltrate and spy on campaigners. 1980s ‘public order’ legislation, and Blair’s slew of counter-terrorism laws, were used to hinder and stifle protest, and the undercover officers of the SDS and subsequent units established an appalling habit of developing sexual relationships with their female targets; now the subject of the Pitchford inquiry. 

With this level of surveillance waged against campaigners and trade unionists for decades, the addition of extra hacking powers on top of existing data interception destroy any notion of privacy, and is disastrous for the freedom to protest in the UK. When your mobile phone can become a bugging device, location tracker and file access point without your knowledge, your ability to meaningfully challenge the authorities through the tradition of peaceful protest is gone. 

When this hacking is carried out under so-called “targeted” warrants (a misnomer if ever there was one, as these permit the hacking of large numbers of people based on vague identifiers) – and when this can happen without audit trail, or notification, we’re in real trouble. Add to all this the recent proposals for a UK 'Espionage Act' which could see whistleblowers and journalists jailed for just handling – let alone publishing – ‘sensitive’ information, and the situation looks even more dangerous.

Given the track record of police and security services regarding campaigners, it would be absurd to suggest that these powers will not be used to target and undermine protest movements. It’s a global trend, too, and one that the UK is deeply involved in. A new surveillance industry index shows that the UK approved 113 applications for the export of interception tools in 2015-16, selling tools like IMSI catchers, which steal mobile phone communications, to countries such as Turkey, Russia, China and the Gulf states. The use of these interception tools to crush dissent is well-documented, as is the role of private companies in gathering intelligence on protesters

Last year, Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg accidentally let the world know that he tapes over the microphone and camera on his laptop. And he’s a man surrounded by lawyers, experts, and advisers, with nearly limitless resources to protect himself from snooping. What chance do ordinary people, with limited awareness of the powers about to be used against them, stand? 

With relatively little debate or scrutiny, the UK is embarking on a surveillance regime that goes beyond any other democratic country. Activists, journalists and even ordinary citizens will now have to find the difficult balance of avoiding the descent into paranoia, while learning how to protect our communications from an expanding surveillance state and its corporate contractors.

About the author

Jen Stout is a writer from Shetland. She was a reporter with Scottish political news site CommonSpace, and is now is doing NCTJ training in Liverpool, thanks to a Journalism Diversity Fund grant. Particular interests include surveillance, blacklisting, land reform and Russia. Tweets @jm_stout


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