A chilling new reports reveals the colonial roots of the UK’s political policing
The author is part of Shoal Collective and is one of the authors of the report highlighted in this piece.
A chilling new piece of research by Shoal Collective tracks the history of the UK surveillance state, and highlights the way that surveillance technology is used in a racialised and classist way. The report reads:
The UK has a reputation as a surveillance state, and with good reason: London has one CCTV camera for every 14 residents. New surveillance technologies such as facial recognition and police drones are already a reality across the UK, with British legislation permitting more state surveillance of private communications than any other country in Europe.
The UK is also one of the world’s largest exporters of surveillance technology with British companies selling phone-hacking technology, spyware and facial recognition software overseas.
Surveillance, an important tool in controlling colonised populations
The report – entitled The UK Surveillance State: Building on centuries of colonial repression – begins by looking at the development of surveillance by the British state in a colonial context:
Harvesting data about colonised populations has allowed the British state to monitor, control manipulate and divide communities, a central component of Britain’s divide and conquer strategy. …
Ireland, Britain’s oldest colony, has served as a testing ground where British surveillance and control tactics were developed and refined for centuries before being implemented elsewhere. Following the Irish rebellion of 1798, the British state undertook mass surveillance of the Irish population, including the collection of statistics and census data. Spies and informers who infiltrated the Irish republican movement at the time played an important role in compromising the 1798 rebellion, and subsequent attempts to overthrow British rule. This monitoring enabled the British to control the Irish population more robustly, and to play nationalist and unionist populations off against each other.
British colonialists in India in the 18th and 19th centuries systematically gathered data on the subjugated population for the purpose of taxation and social control. After the 1858 Indian rebellion against the British East India Company, efforts gathered apace to develop a new system of ‘scientific’ population classification in order to enable the famous British ‘divide and rule’ strategy, which consolidated British rule by weaponising the divisions between India’s different religious communities and castes
According to Shoal Collective, the technologies of the modern day surveillance society have clearly traced colonial roots. The report quotes anti-colonial writer Elia Zureik:
It is significant that the basic tools of surveillance as we know them today (fingerprinting, census taking, map-making and profiling – including the forerunners of present day biometrics) were refined and implemented in colonial settings, notably by the Dutch in Southeast Asia, the French in Africa, and the British in India and North America.
This experience during the 18th and 19th centuries paved the way for the use of high-tech surveillance technology in Britain’s 20th century occupations:
The UK’s use of surveillance as a colonialist strategy has become increasingly high-tech in recent decades, mirroring the advances in surveillance technology more broadly. Since 2007, the British occupation of Afghanistan has utilised unpiloted aircraft, or drones. Similarly, drones have also been used by British troops in Iraq and Syria.
Spying on domestic dissidents
The British state has used these lessons – learned through violent colonial repression – in the monitoring of its domestic population too. The report outlines the history of police spying on the UK’s rebellious social movements:
In the late 1960s, as revolution and rebellion erupted across the world, a specialist undercover police unit was created in Britain with a mandate to spy on groups on the left. Throughout the 1970s, undercover officers from the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) infiltrated anti-racist, black liberation, Irish solidarity, working-class, Marxist and anarchist movements.
In the 1970s and 80s the British Intelligence Services set up a Subversion in Public Life Committee to spy on those involved in industrial agitating.
The 1980s was a period of intense struggle by Black and Brown communities in Britain against the institutionalised racism of the British state. The SDS responded in the ‘80s and ‘90s by spying on these communities intensively.
It has recently been revealed that SDS and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) targeted the families of people of colour killed by the police. The NPOIU also spied on the the family of Stephen Lawrence, who were trying to get justice after their son was killed in a racist attack in London in the 1990s. Their campaign attracted police surveillance after it threatened to expose institutional racism in London’s Metropolitan Police.
Undercover police also posed as members of ecological and animal liberation direct action movements throughout the 1990s, often using the tactic of entering into intimate relationships with female political organisers in order to gain information. The officers didn’t revel their true identities to their partners. These tactics continued at least until the revelation of the extent of police spying in the late 2000s.
Covert undercover policing was accompanied by overt surveillance of social movements:
Undercover tactics have been used alongside overt surveillance of social movements. In the 2000s the police began heavily using Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT), who would follow political organisers overtly, often appearing with long-lens cameras at protests or political meetings. According to Richard Purssell, an anti-militarist organiser who was followed extensively by FIT teams at anti-militarist protests in London in 2009:
“They are there to intimidate you from protesting, from being part of the awkward squad. There is a clear message that they are onto you.”
Repression of workers’ movements
The Conservative governments of the 1980s and 90s was also actively involved in the repression of workers’ movements:
Successive British governments have used legislation to criminalise different forms of dissent which are seen as a threat to the status quo, and to criminalise certain communities. The Conservative governments of the 1980s and ‘90s targeted the rights of trade unionists to strike, put in place repressive stop and search powers targeting Black and Muslim communities, and introduced a new Public Order Act which included measures specifically intended to control political protests and criminalise squatters and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
The Terrorism Act ushers in a new era of repression
In 2000, New Labour’s Terrorism Act brought in even more repressive measures to control dissent:
In 2000 the Labour government pushed through a repressive Terrorism Act, which among other deeply concerning elements, made it illegal to support various groups – including leftwing groups – that Britain considers to be terrorists. Support was described in the broadest of terms. For example, the Act makes it an offence to wear items of clothing that might indicate support for a group featured on the list. Several of Britain’s non-white communities – including supporters of the Tamil and Kurdish freedom movements – have faced criminalisation ever since
At the same time as the Terrorism Act was brought into force, the police were given new surveillance powers:
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 increased covert police surveillance powers, and made it a criminal offence not to disclose passwords for electronic devices to the police in certain circumstances.
Police in the UK also began using the label ‘domestic extremist’ in an attempt to undermine radical organising in the UK:
British police began using the term ‘domestic-extremism’ during the 2000s to describe supporters of left-wing movements, direct action campaigns, protest groups, and the far right. Those dubbed domestic extremists have been subjected to excessive police surveillance and have been vilified in the media.
According to Netpol the label has a “chilling” effect on “participation in public protest and campaigns” and constrains “the fundamental values that lie at the heart of a fair and free society”
Prevent: bringing state surveillance to a new and deeply troubling level
Labour also brought in Prevent legislation, essentially making it mandatory for people in some professions to report ‘suspicious behaviour’:
The Labour government’s PREVENT programme brought state surveillance in Britain to a new deeply troubling level. It became mandatory for civil servants, such as teachers, medical professionals and other staff employed by the state to report any behaviour which they considered to be suspicious to the authorities, under the logic that in doing so they may pre-empt an impending terrorist attack.
PREVENT was strengthened by successive Conservative governments and in effect, today, PREVENT places a statutory duty on civil servants to spy and report on people in settings such as schools and universities, during medical appointments, or while in hospital.
According to Netpol, PREVENT “criminalises legitimate dissent by collecting intelligence about the thoughts and beliefs of individuals who are not involved in criminal activity”.
PREVENT’s draconian powers were strengthened by the Conservative government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which was passed in 2015.This Act also made it compulsory – in many cases – for communication service providers to retain and hand over information about users’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, making it easier to link individuals to particular electronic devices and locations.
In 2016, the Conservative government passed another extremely repressive piece of legislation. This paved the way for even more state surveillance:
In December 2016, the UK parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, which gives police forces and intelligence officers the legal right to “hack into computers, networks, mobile devices, servers… This could include downloading data from a mobile phone that is stolen or left unattended, or software that tracks every keyboard letter pressed being installed on a laptop”. Dubbed a “snoopers’ charter”, it shows the lengths to which the British government is prepared to go to spy on the British population, in particular organisers of social movements, journalists and lawyers acting on their behalf.
Civil rights organisation, Liberty, stated that the Investigatory Powers Act allows the government “to spy on every one of us, violating our rights to privacy and free expression”
Boris Johnson’s Conservative government seems intent on pushing the surveillance state even further. This year, the Conservative government pushed a highly controversial bill through parliament, giving undercover agents the right to break the law:
In March 2021 the Conservative government pushed another bill – dubbed the Spycops Bill – through parliament that authorises covert agents, such as police officers, MI5 agents, or military personnel, to legally carry out what would usually be considered criminal conduct. Crucially, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill gives undercover police a green-light to continue deceiving women into sexual relationships.
Kill the Bill
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament – despite heavy opposition – is the next step in this process of building a UK police state, where mass surveillance is the norm:
[protests are] underway against the 2021 Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill. If passed, the Act will be the biggest clampdown on freedom to protest in the UK since the Public Order Act. The proposal is to amend the Public Order Act, giving police greater powers to place restrictions on public gatherings, arrest protesters for being noisy, criminalise trespass and expand stop and search powers. Heftier sentences will be given for assaulting police officers, and a new statutory offence of public nuisance will be created, punishable by up to ten years in prison.
The Bill threatens to further criminalise the UK’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who could face prosecution or imprisonment for setting up camps on privately owned land.The No Fixed Abode Travellers and Supporters Collective made the following statement:
“It is a fact that our absolute right as human beings to travel nomadically is being questioned and this is not ok! No one should be ques–tioned, controlled, arrested or have their homes seized for choosing a nomadic lifestyle.”
The Bill is also designed as an authoritarian response to the Black Lives Matter movement’s tearing down of statues that commemorate Britain’s racist history. It proposes making the damaging of national monuments punishable by up to tens years imprisonment.
Police strategy is paving the way for even more surveillance
In March 2021, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) released a chilling report, paving the way for even more surveillance:
At the same time as the Bill was being read in parliament, a report was released by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) making a number of recommendations, including proposing the continued use of high-tech surveillance technologies such as facial recognition and drones against protesters.The report also sets out a strategy for a new era of police surveillance, through the National Police Coordination Centre’s Strategic Intelligence and Briefing team (NPoCC SIB). The NPoCC SIB will gather information from different police forces about dissent in the UK, and “take national responsibility for protest-related intelligence”.
‘A continuation of Britain’s colonial legacy.‘
Shoal Collective sees the current mass surveillance state as a product of the British state’s years of experience subjugating colonised popualtions:
The British Empire used surveillance, spying, data collection and monitoring techniques for centuries to impose its rule on colonised populations and stifle dissent. However, technological advances coupled with the state’s self-serving national security narratives over the last two decades have enabled the creation of a surveillance society on steroids.
State surveillance is used alongside police violence and the violence of the pris–on system to control dissent. The ever-encroaching surveillance state has a chill–ing effect on participation in social movements for change, because it enables the targeting, harassment and criminalisation of social movement organisers.
In a continuation of its colonial legacy, the effects of the British surveillance state are not felt equally. Instead certain communities are treated more harshly than others:
The discriminatory application of the UK’s draconian terror legislation means that certain communities are treated with suspicion and criminalised. For example, Muslims, Tamil people and Kurdish people encounter even greater police surveillance by virtue of their religion or ethnicity. The UK government is also pushing for new repressive trespass laws, which will destroy the livelihoods of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. This unequal treatment of certain communities within the UK surveillance state is a continuation of Britain’s colonial legacy.
Resist the police state
Shoal Collective concludes with these words:
It is necessary for us to fight back against the surveillance society and to resist the introduction of new technologies that will be used to control us and our communities. We need to take steps to defend ourselves against state surveillance and to stand up for those movements and communities who will bear the biggest brunt of it.
This is only possible if we are able to look beyond the state’s ‘national security’ smokescreens which are intended to isolate and divide us, and to stand in solidarity with radical social movements, working class communities and people of colour – all of whom disproportionately face state repression and criminalisation.
Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Shoal Collective were involved in doing the research and writing the report mentioned in this article.
Featured Image via Pexels
- Read the report: ‘The UK Surveillance State: Building on Centuries of Colonial Repression’
- Check out the other reports on France and Spain, and the case studies on the Mass Surveillance website
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