Police technology has just got a whole lot more intrusive, and it’s being used on protests

police body worn cameras
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West Midlands Police has announced that it is the first UK force to livestream body-worn camera footage. This is recorded by police on the ground, and viewed by officers in an operations room. The quality of the footage is said to be so good that the officer viewing it remotely will be able to see better than police at the scene. The force said:

From today, the latest body worn camera live streaming technology will be switched on, making us the first force in the country to use it and allowing officers to remotely view another officer’s body cam.

The police stated that it has already trialled the software at protests:

 We’ve used it at policing operations such as football matches and protests, and during pursuits with traffic officers.

It also said that it had consulted the public on the use of the bodycams, and that most people questioned were happy to be livestreamed:

We have carried out extensive consultation and over 90 per cent of people told us they strongly agreed with us being able to use this new function.

Of course, the police didn’t state who exactly the people it consulted were. It is doubtful that they spoke to the members of the public that they were trialling the surveillance on: those attending protests and football matches. When The Canary contacted West Midlands Police, asking which protests the technology had been used on, the force refused to give a specific answer.

Read on...

Protest is not an invitation for surveillance

As the Network for Police Monitoring has pointed out, “choosing to take part in a protest is not an invitation to surveillance”. When we take to the streets, we don’t automatically consent to our every move being tracked, and we don’t consent to police officers filming our items of clothing, the people we are talking to, or the conversations we’re having.

This new technology could mean that the police are breaching Article 8 of the Human Rights Act: the right to respect for a private life. But, of course, there are a number of ways that the state can get around this. Authorities can interfere with your right to respect for privacy in order to:

protect national security
protect public safety
protect the economy
protect health or morals
prevent disorder or crime, or
protect the rights and freedoms of other people.

The state, will, of course, argue that such intrusive surveillance of a protest is needed to protect national security (even if they’re actually trying to protect their own power). Even while it tracks your every move, the state will say that it is only protecting the public. And in a society where capitalism is the religion, it will argue that it needs to track you in order to protect the economy.

It remains to be seen how the police will utilise the livestream footage. Will police in an operations room, for example, instruct officers at a protest to film, follow or arrest certain individuals that it deems troublemakers? The answer is, most likely, yes. Together with increasingly powerful facial recognition technology, the chances of being able to attend a demonstration anonymously are becoming a thing of the past.

Years of state surveillance

Police surveillance at protests is, of course, nothing new in the UK. Police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT), armed with their video cameras, have been a regular fixture at demonstrations for decades. Fifteen years ago, protesters began to organise collectively, trying to prevent officers from filming them. Known as Fitwatch, people on the ground used homemade banners to actively block police cameras. Back in 2010, Canary editor Emily Apple wrote in the Guardian:

Fitwatch was formed three years ago as a street-level response to intimidation and harassment from the forward intelligence teams (Fits), with tactics ranging from blocking cameras to printing numbers, names and photographs of known police officers on our blog, and offering advice to demonstrators about staying safe in protest situations.

Fitwatch’s tactics were effective, which, of course, made them targets for repression and arrest.The Metropolitan Police even succeeded in getting Fitwatch’s website – temporarily – shut down for perverting the course of justice. In fact, the tactics were so successful that a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2021 lamented the fact that FIT tactics are not regularly used “because [some forces] fear that this might increase confrontation with protesters”.

The report further stated that:

Guidance from the Royal College of Policing advises commanders that their use may have a ‘significant impact on the public’s perception of police and their legitimacy’.

On top of this surveillance, people have been – and likely still are – covertly spied upon by police or corporate infiltrators posing as activists. Hundreds, if not thousands, of activists and campaigners have been spied upon by the British police over the years. An inquiry into undercover policing is ongoing, with more than 200 participants who were spied upon taking part in the inquiry. If that wasn’t enough, more than 30 women now know that they were deceived into relationships with undercover police officers. Despite the ongoing inquiry into undercover policing, the government has passed the sinister Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, which has legalised all activity of undercover police officers.

No, the police won’t use their own footage to hold themselves accountable

You might be forgiven for thinking that the police’s livestreamed footage might actually be a good thing. After all, it could be used to catch police officers committing their all-too-frequent acts of violence, and they could then be held accountable.

This is, of course, wishful thinking. West Midlands Police has stated that

at this stage [the technology] will not be used for any independent scrutiny around use of force or stop and search.

In other words, the police will use their new surveillance technology (paid for with public money, of course) to keep their eagle eye on you and me, but they will still be unaccountable for the Black men and boys that they continually harass during stop and searches. And they’ll continue to be unaccountable for murdering people.

The technology is yet to be rolled out nationwide. It remains to be seen how it will be used in court cases, or whether defence barristers will be allowed to demand records of what happens between police on the ground and the officers instructing them in operations rooms.

However, the experiences of the Fitwatch campaign also show that we can effectively take action on the streets to challenge police surveillance, and that such campaigns can have an impact on how policing strategies are enforced. It’s therefore vital that we all take steps to resist surveillance and to keep each other safe.

Featured image via West Midlands Police / Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0, resized to 770 x 403 px. 


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