Police forces challenged over files held on law-abiding protesters

Paul Mobbs 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 
police forces.

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')

Paul's book, "Energy Beyond Oil", is out now!
For details see http://www.fraw.org.uk/ebo/

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Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
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email - mobbsey at gn.apc.org
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