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Policewatch Films

Friday, 16 October 2009

FITwatch exposes extent of police protester database.

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

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Police vehicle surveillance – the use of Automatic Number Plate Readers at climate camp protests.

This weekend is the Climate Camp Swoop, and environmental activists will be heading to Radcliffe power station in Nottingham for the mass action. Many will be travelling by road, but Climate Camp activists driving to Radcliffe on the 17th October should be prepared to take a few precautions if they want to avoid being picked up by vehicle surveillance.

Police ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Reader) units have been used before at Climate Camp actions to alert police to the arrival of ‘known’ activists. Police at Kingsnorth used ANPR to monitor and intercept activist cars as they arrived. It is possible that a similar strategy will be used in Nottingham.

The police have for some years been collecting the vehicle registration numbers of vehicles used to get to protests, gatherings and even meetings. If your registration number is on this list, it could be picked up by the ANPR system.

How does ANPR work?

Motorways have permanent ANPR cameras, but mobile units can also be used on minor roads. Mobile ANPR units can be covert and hard to spot, but they are usually transit sized vans marked with camera symbols.

The cameras automatically read the number plates of cars passing by. The on-board computer then checks the numbers against a number of different databases. This is usually car registration, insurance, MOT etc, but the ANPR units can also check if your car is on a list of ‘protest’ vehicles.

If the ANPR flags up a ‘hit’ the police can be instructed either to simply note the fact you have arrived (perhaps flagging you up for more targeted surveillance), or to intercept the car. If you are stopped the police have powers to search the car similar to those they would use on a pedestrian (see below).

How do I avoid getting picked up by ANPR?

This is a fairly new police tactic, so advice in avoiding ANPR is based on informed guesswork only. There are no guarantees!

If possible, drive a car that has never been used to get to a protest or gathering before. In theory at least, if you have not used your car in ‘protest related activity’ before, it should not be picked up.

Borrow a vehicle from friends and family rather than hire one. Hire cars were routinely picked up by ANPR readers in Kingsnorth, so are not the ideal choice!
Don’t take a car without insurance and MOT – ANPRs are routinely used to pick up cars that are not street legal.

Take a longer, quieter route in. At Kingsnorth ANPR was put on the major access routes. The police have limited ANPR resources and can’t put all roads under surveillance, although they will try to cover those routes that are hardest to avoid.

Get dirty. ANPR readers need a standard, UK, clean number plate to get a read. Non-standard number plates, foreign plates and plates that are very dirty cause problems for the ANPR. You might want to drive down a very wet muddy road before you get there.

What should I do if notice an ANPR unit by the side of the road?

Note down all the details – location, direction, time etc – and let others know who may be travelling that way. And please tell us – the more info we have, the better we can keep track of what they are up to.

What powers do they have to stop and search a vehicle?

The police have the power to stop any vehicle, and ask the driver for their driving licence. Contrary to what some coppers say, you do not have to carry your driving licence with you, although you can be asked to produce it at a police station of your choice within seven days.

The driver of the vehicle is obliged to give their name, address and date of birth (s164 s165 Road Traffic Act 1988). The police have NO powers to demand the names and addresses of passengers. If they ask anyone other than the driver for their details they should be politely told where to go.

Police can carry out the stop and search of a vehicle under the same provisions applying to people on foot. A section 60 order, if in place, also applies to vehicles. Otherwise the police can search under PACE, but need the normal reasonable suspicion that they may find weapons, articles that could be used to cause criminal damage etc. They do not need the owners consent.