Police forces challenged over files held on law-abiding protesters
mobbsey at gn.apc.org
Tue Oct 27 08:20:51 GMT 2009
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Well, at least we have this put on the record, which of course begs the
question as to who evolved the phrase! --
"Alan Johnson, the home secretary, was today forced to defend the police for
labelling protesters 'domestic extremists'. He said: 'I haven't issued any
guidance [to police] on the definition of that phrase.'"
Police forces challenged over files held on law-abiding protesters
Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, Guardian On-line, Monday 26 October 2009
Chief constables will be forced to justify the legality of recording thousands
of law-abiding protesters on secret nationwide databases, the government's
privacy watchdog announced today.
Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, said he had "genuine
concerns about the ever increasing amount" of personal data held by police.
Graham's move came after the Guardian revealed how police have developed a
covert apparatus to monitor people they consider are, or could be, "domestic
extremists", a term which has no legal basis.
Photographs and personal details of thousands of activists who attend
demonstrations, rallies and political meetings are being stored on the
databases. Surveillance officers are given so-called "spotter cards" to identify
individuals who may "instigate offences or disorder" at demonstrations.
Alan Johnson, the home secretary, was today forced to defend the police for
labelling protesters "domestic extremists". He said: "I haven't issued any
guidance [to police] on the definition of that phrase. The police know what
they are doing, they know how to tackle these demonstrations, they do it very
There were "far fewer" cases of animal rights extremism than in previous
years, he said. "That's just one form of domestic extremism. If the police
want to use that as a term, I certainly wouldn't fall to the floor clutching my
box of Kleenex.
David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, said that "an alphabet
soup of agencies appears to have decided to put everyone in this country who
protests about anything on a list of suspects".
"This is an example of mission creep, they have gone beyond their original
intention of dealing with violent animal extremists"
Three units given the task of monitoring "domestic extremists" are run by the
Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), including the National Public Order
Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which operates as a giant database of political
David Smith, the deputy information commissioner, said: "We will raise this
issue with Acpo and seek further information from them about the personal
information the police are collecting.
"We do have genuine concerns about the ever increasing amounts of information
that law enforcement bodies are retaining. Organisations must only collect
people's personal information for a proper purpose. We will need to talk to
Acpo to understand why they consider it is necessary to hold lawful
protesters' details in this way, before considering whether this meets the
terms of the Data Protection Act."
He also urged demonstrators who suspected they might be on a database to
challenge the police. "Individuals have the right to request information that
is held about them and can challenge organisations about whether, and for how
long, the data should be retained."
One activist, Linda Catt, who has been told that footage of her protesting at
last year's Labour party conference is being held on the NPOIU database, said
she would lodge a complaint with the information commissioner about why her
details are being held. Catt also discovered her vehicle was being tracked by
a network of automatic number plate reading cameras at the roadside.
The development comes amid growing concern that police forces are accumulating
detailed information about peaceful protesters without proper justification.
The NPOIU database can access information collected and stored by individual
However, there is evidence that police forces supplying the data are not
holding the information lawfully. In May, the court of appeal found against
the Metropolitan police in a landmark ruling over the retention of photographs
on a database run by its public order unit, CO11.
The court found the force had been unlawfully holding images of Andrew Wood,
an anti-arms trade campaigner who was photographed leaving a public meeting.
One judge said there were unresolved civil liberties questions about the way
images were taken and retained in "the modern surveillance society".
The C011 database, which initially contained 2,500 images, has been reduced to
around 1,500 images after an internal audit found that 40% of the those being
held were not compliant with the ruling.
Speaking to the Guardian, the Met's assistant commissioner, Chris Allison, who
is in overall charge of C011, admitted today that the Met had been forced to
review its IT systems.
"The judgment made plain, and clarified for the police service, the
circumstances under which we could retain images. It set down a clear set of
standards for us, and as an organisation it is important that we live by those
standards. Then we looked at what we could and couldn't do in light of that
He stressed the public order database was not – unlike another Met IT system
used to log the movements of protesters named Crimint – accessed by rank and
file officers. "The C011 database is just there to enable a few people within the
public order branch intelligence squad to have access. This isn't routine
access across the organisation."
A spokesman for the Acpo domestic extremism units said people on the database
"should not be worried".
"There are lots of reasons why people might be on the database," he said. "Not
everyone on there is a criminal and not everyone on there is a domestic
extremist but we have got to build up a picture of what is happening. Those
people may be able to help us in the future. It's an intelligence database,
not an evidence database."
"Protesting is not a criminal offence but there is occasionally a line that is
crossed when people commit offences."
Police forces around the country feed information about protesters into the
NPOIU central database in London. Most of it comes from special branch and
officers who record what people do and say at protests.
In an interview with the Guardian, Anton Setchell, the National co-ordinator
of the Acpo units, gave a hypothetical example: "At such and such a time, I
was on duty in whatever high street, there was this event taking place, and in
amongst it I saw a man who I've known for the last three years called... He
was wearing a blue shirt and at 3.05pm he stood on a podium and got a
megaphone and gave a 20-minute address to the crowd."
- - --
"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burroughs, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')
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