>Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) have been a familiar sight at demonstrations for years, and many activists have had first hand experience of their particular brand of harassment and intimidation. But although it is well known that they keep data on ‘known’ activists, including photos for their ‘spotter cards’, the full details of how extensive their database is, and how that data is used is only just beginning to surface.
FITwatch obtained evidence last December that the Metropolitan police places the personal data of political protesters onto their criminal intelligence database (Crimint), through the production of ‘intelligence reports’ by Forward Intelligence Teams In a subsequent Guardian investigation senior Met officers admitted the database included the names of regular attendees at political protest, regardless of whether or not they had done anything unlawful.
FITwatch has now obtained evidence of a further, image database of protesters, operated by the Public Order Intelligence Unit (CO11) based at New Scotland Yard. They had initially denied that they ran their own protester database, but taking the stand at a recent trial of FITwatch activists, Superintendent Hartshorn, a senior officer at CO11, admitted that they did just that. CO11 held, he said, a database containing the name and photographic image of people they had noted attending political protest.
Entries on that database are identified with a ‘unique reference number’ or URN. This makes each entry capable of being searched and cross referenced across all police forces and agencies. In effect, this means that CO11 can create a police file capable of drawing together all police information relating to an individual – police checks on their car, ‘intelligence reports’ written at demonstrations, stop and search records – even if that person has never been arrested, let alone convicted.
Superintendent Hartshorn identified how individuals were singled out for inclusion in the database. The police needed, he said, ‘two strands of intelligence’. One strand may be a ‘more than passing contact’ during a protest or demonstration with an individual who is already on that database. The other may be a subjective assessment of a FIT officer on the way someone was ‘behaving’. Previously the police have admitted that membership of an organisation such as ‘Stop the War’ was sufficient to justify an ‘interest’.
The Gaza demonstration at which the FITwatch activists were arrested was a classic example of how easy it is to get an entry on the CO11 database. This particular demonstration was quite calm, but there had been disorder at previous demonstrations, primarily as a result of police attempting to force protesters into a police pen.
FITwatch activists had been arrested after FIT camera teams who were filming and photographing people on the demonstration were obstructed. One of the Forward Intelligence Teams had spent over a quarter of an hour targeting a small group of Asian lads, repeatedly taking their photographs, and tailing them through the demonstration. In court, FIT officers complained that even after a quarter of an hour they had not obtained photographs sufficient for intelligence purposes, but admitted they had no reason to suspect this group had committed any criminal offence, or that they intended to do so. They were targeted only because they were ‘young and male, and moved through the demonstration as a group’. ‘Young and male’ protesters, they said, had been involved in previous disorder.
Seemingly the police feel that fitting such a broad profile justifies intrusive and intimidating surveillance, and the production of a police file.
The police appear to be able to collect and collate personal data on people without any restriction or accountability. There is no body that regulates this or provides oversight. They write their own rules.
FITwatch has for the last two years set out to disrupt and obstruct police data gathering on political protests, and we make no apologies for doing that. Not only has FITwatch brought FIT to public attention in a way that no other campaign has done, the use of direct action by FITwatch has been an effective obstacle to police gathering of data at political meetings, rallies and demonstrations.
FITwatch will continue to resist and challenge FIT operations, but we do need help. If you are interested in getting involved or in supporting us in any way, please get in touch – e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.