Police Spying On Protesters Stirs Outrage in Britain


Delia Lloyd


Britain has long been famous for its surveillance state. There are security cameras everywhere you go. The country has the largest DNA database in the world. And a national identity card program is well underway. But new revelations that British police have been spying on domestic protesters have infuriated citizens all along the political spectrum.

The spying came to light in a series of stories in The Guardian over the past month. In late October, the newspaper revealed that photographs of and personal details about thousands of activists who attend demonstrations, rallies and political meetings were being stored in secret national databases.

In an eerily "1984"-esque twist, the protesters were labeled "domestic extremists" by the private organization -- the Association of Chief Police Officers (AcPO) -- that carried out the surveillance and which receives 9 million pounds annually in public funding.

Equally chilling were the so-called "spotter cards" (like this one) used by police to identify individuals who might "instigate offenses or disorder" at demonstrations. Does that look like something out of "The Stasi Files" or what?

Earlier this week, it also came to light that undercover police were secretly deployed at the G20 meetings in early April. Some 25 undercover City of London police were stationed around the Bank of England to gather intelligence on protesters.

And there's more. Last month, the Guardian also broke a story on the government-sponsored-program Prevent. This 140-million-pound scheme was ostensibly designed to dissuade Muslim youth from engaging in violent extremism. But it was simultaneously gathering information on the political views and sexual practices of innocent Muslims not even suspected of terrorist activity.

Indeed, what has people up in arms is that organizations like AcPO are no longer just targeting groups operating outside the democratic process. They are monitoring peaceful, non-violent protesters who engage in civil disobedience. As one Guardian columnist wrote, "by blurring the lines between the civil and criminal law and publicly branding those who take part in demonstrations and direct action, the police and the Home Office are in effect criminalizing political dissent."

Surveillance can also lead to harassment. Protester A in the above "spotter card" describes how she was followed home from one meeting by a van full of riot police and photographed repeatedly while breastfeeding her young son.

The intensified atmosphere of surveillance is also having political ramifications. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a friend who's voted for the Labour party his entire life. Largely because of the encroachment on civil liberties, he plans to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the next election. When I asked him, "Which infringements offend you in particular?," he replied with an e-mail about 8,000 characters in length.

The Conservative party has picked up on this growing sentiment. The Tories have vowed to reverse the rise of the surveillance state with an 11-point plan calling for fewer databases and stronger powers to protect privacy.

Even the government seems to be moving in that direction. Just yesterday, Her Majesty's chief inspector of the constabulary gave a blistering assessment of police activity during the G20 protests (where one person died from police brutality). He argued for a wholesale reform of the British police that would be "anchored in public consent." While the recommendations were aimed primarily at reducing aggressive police behavior, there was also a call to "shake up" AcPO and allow for more oversight and transparency. Gordon Brown has promised to follow suit.

As an American living in London who grew up watching "The Avengers" and reading George Orwell, I will own up to a certain creepy fascination with this whole thing. But it's also giving me pause. The next time I'm invited to attend a march to defend the neighborhood post office or sign a petition to keep the local butcher in business, I may just think twice.

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