Lawyers warn of threat to campaign groups’ confidential data

Extinction Rebellion protest sign and a police officer with camera
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Lawyers representing victims of undercover policing say it’s crucial that political protest and campaign groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, don’t assume their data is secure.

This follows dramatic testimony presented at the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). It revealed how undercover officers (UCOs) were able to penetrate a UK-wide political campaign organisation and so gain access to its membership lists. Indeed, there’s evidence that the police and security agencies will go to any length to acquire confidential documents, including political campaign groups’ membership lists.

TOM intrusion

Troops Out Movement (TOM) campaigned for “the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland” and “for self-determination for the Irish people”. Lawyers with the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) represent a number of victims of undercover policing. Two of their clients – Richard Chessum and ‘Mary’ – were involved in TOM.

Earlier in May, it was revealed that UCO Richard Clark (aka ‘Rick Gibson’ HN297) had infiltrated TOM. A September 1982 Special Branch (SB) report, released by the UCPI, referred to a list of TOM subscribers. That report was signed off by UCO “HN68” (“Sean Lynch“) and copied to Box 500, the colloquial name for MI5. UCO “HN96” (aka “Michael James“) also infiltrated TOM and went on to become its membership and affiliation secretary.

HN96 mentions how information about TOM members would have been “of interest” to SB. Indeed, PILC tweeted how infiltration of TOM (and the Socialist Workers Party) meant state agencies could not only get hold of membership lists but also be in a better position to “derail campaigns”:

Licence to commit crimes

These revelations are arguably relevant to present-day policing too, as well as to the security of political campaign groups. And new legislation will assist the authorities further in targeting those groups.

For example, there’s the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently at the committee stage. Among a range of reforms, the legislation is intended to apply to what it regards as “highly disruptive” protests. And in this regard it refers to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests.

Then there’s the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Act which passed earlier this year. Controversially, it authorises sources to commit criminal acts against specified targets:

(i) in the interests of national security, (ii) for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder, or (iii) in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.

Authorisation to a CHIS to carry out criminal acts can be granted by a number of bodies, including but not limited to:

  • Police.
  • Intelligence services.
  • Armed forces.
  • Revenue and customs.
  • Government departments.

According to the College of Policing, human intelligence sources can include:

victims, witnesses, suspects, colleagues such as local and field intelligence officers, community sources including community and race advisers, local councillors, religious leaders and members of the community

Barrister Jacob Bindman explained that the CHIS bill came about after it had been revealed that MI5 was able to “authorise criminal activity on the part of its covert agents”. Significantly, Bindman added that this practice “only [came] to light in separate litigation regarding the bulk collection of personal data”. In other words, theft of confidential data by MI5 or its sources.

Labelled as terrorists

Home secretary Priti Patel has described activists with the BLM as “criminals”. And in January 2020, the Guardian revealed that Greenpeace, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and XR were listed on a “counter-terrorism” document. The document was produced by Counter Terrorism Policing and used for training purposes for the Prevent programme.

The Guardian also revealed how a retired doctor who joined XR and “took part in non-violent environmental protests” was reported to the Prevent programme by his NHS trust.

Private operators

Of course infiltration or intrusion operations aren’t confined to the police and state spying agencies, or their sources.

Blogger Secret Manoeuvres wrote about how freelance undercover operative Martin Hogbin had infiltrated the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). Hogbin worked for Evelyn le Chêne and her company Threat Response International (TRI), which was contracted by BAE.

A Sunday Times article stated that Le Chêne recruited “at least half a dozen agents to infiltrate CAAT’s headquarters at Finsbury Park, north London, and a number of regional offices”. It added that TRI reports:

“enabled BAe to build a large file of activists’ names, addresses and telephone numbers as well as always keeping fully briefed on their meetings, demonstrations and political contacts

Also that “one agent downloaded the entire contents of a CAAT headquarters computer including a membership list, personal folders and details of private donations”.

Moreover, freelancer Paul Mercer is known to have infiltrated a number of campaign groups. In 2007, Mercer was exposed for his ops on CAAT. His contract was via Global Open (GO), a private surveillance firm. UCO Mark Kennedy (formerly of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit) also worked for GO. Rod Leeming, formerly of Special Branch, was GO’s managing director.

The Canary further reported that Mercer worked as a security consultant for LigneDeux Associates. This was a company financed by BAE to provide information on ‘threats’.

In October 2020 The Canary also reported on ‘black ops’ unit Zeus Security. MI5 reportedly contracted Zeus to spy on environmental protesters who tried to halt the building of a nuclear reactor in Suffolk.

Precautions

There’s a long history of infiltration of political protest and campaign groups by MI5, UCOs, or their sources – or indeed by those acting on behalf of non-state organisations. In certain cases the government’s Prevent programme could be used to justify infiltration. Intrusion and theft of confidential data, including membership information, is now far easier via digital means.

These threats should not be ignored. And campaigning organisations should take every step necessary to tighten their security, both digital and conventional.

Featured image via Wikipedia – David Holt / Emily Apple

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