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‘Spy cops’ victims share ongoing data protection concerns

Under Cover Policing Inquiry will consider whether the extensive amount of personal data collected about left-wing activists by the Special Demonstration Squad was justified, as witnesses question whether information about them is still being collected

Undercover police officers collected and disseminated a “substantial volume of personal information” about left-wing activists, including women they deceived into intimate sexual relationships, in surveillance that was “clearly disproportionate and inappropriate”, a public inquiry has heard.

Established in 2015 to investigate the practices of undercover policing units – including the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was created in 1968 to infiltrate British protest groups as part of the Met Police’s Special Branch – the Under Cover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) began its second phase on 21 April 2021.

Headed by former judge Sir John Mitting, this phase will examine the SDS’s activities between 1972 and 1983, beginning with three days of opening statements from witnesses.

The inquiry will look at whether the intelligence-gathering practices of undercover officers were justified, and is expected to reveal details of how data protection issues were neglected at a time when laws were being introduced to govern the use of personal information.

Matthew Ryder QC, who was speaking on behalf of anti-apartheid campaigners Peter Haine, Jonathan Rosenhead and Ernest Rodker, said a striking feature of the SDS’s intelligence reports was “how much mundane and trivial personal information was collected” as a result of its surveillance activities.

Ryder noted that two separate intelligence reports were filed by undercover officers (UCOs) in 1976 about Rodker and subsequently shared with the security service – one solely about the birth of his son, and the other solely about the fact that he had suffered a heart attack at home and was now in St James Hospital.

The UCOs similarly reported on the presence of Hain’s younger sisters, both children at the time, at meetings of the Young Liberals held in his parents’ home, which was again shared with the security service.  

“How and why this personal information was deemed relevant to collect and to then pass on seems difficult to justify,” said Ryder. “This information is not unusual, but typical of what was collected.

“For example, HN304/‘Graham Coates’ filed a report on an anarchist and his wife, noting a subscription to Anarchy magazine alongside a comment that ‘the couple have a mongol child’. This information was signed off by a chief inspector and chief superintendent and the intelligence report was sent to the security service.”

Ryder previously said in phase one of the inquiry, in an opening statement on behalf of more than 100 participants, that all of these people were subject to spying and reporting on their personal lives by police, with records and data stored about them for decades without any justifiable purpose.

Personal data ‘hoovered up mindlessly’

In her opening statement on 22 April, Diane Langford – whose ongoing activism began with the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in the early 1960s – said “our personal data was hoovered up mindlessly and meaninglessly with as little empathy as if by an algorithm”, and that this was “illustrated time and again” in SDS reports.

Referring to a variety of files submitted as evidence to the inquiry, Langford said this information ranged from in-depth descriptions of activists’ physical appearances and samples of women’s handwriting, to details of people’s bank accounts and who owned their homes.

She added that one officer, HN45, displayed a “peculiar obsession” in his reports with her personal relationship with her former partner Abhimanyu Manchanda (referred to by her as Manu) and their childcare arrangements.

“He sent detailed reports to the Special Branch about what he apparently saw as transgressive behaviour – a man looking after his own child – and expressing horror that I was ‘sent out to work’. He informs his superiors of Manu’s ‘insufferable anecdotes’ about our baby,” Langford told the inquiry.

“Strangely, nothing in there about us overthrowing the state machine.”

Peter Skelton QC, counsel for the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told the inquiry that SDS officers were often asked to provide an extensive range of personal information about the activists they were spying on.   

“Some of this – such as a person’s approximate age, their physical appearance, their address, profession or trade, employment and employment history, contacts and associated vehicles – may be understood as being relevant to reporting on persons of interest to MPSB [Met Police Special Branch] or the security service,” said Skelton in his opening statement.

“There is also reporting on sensitive personal information which may or may not have been justifiable to record, depending on the context. Such reporting might include detail about relationships starting and ending, with reasons, or attendees at social events, and the members of a person’s family or household.”

Skelton added that although “the MPS acknowledges that some of the information about personal lives was set down in more detail than was necessary… it reiterates that intelligence collection does on occasion require the recording of detail which may seem innocuous or irrelevant, but may be significant at a later date”.

A thread to the present day

Witnesses also expressed concern about the retention of their personal information without their knowledge and the extent to which it affected, and continues to affect, their lives.

Langford added: “I’ll never know what career opportunities were denied to me, or what other barriers have been placed in front of me during my life, as a result of the machinations of the Special Demonstration Squad. I’ll never know whether unpleasant incidents, for example, being denied credit or visas, or break-ins at my home, were connected to the surveillance I was being subjected to.”

“Madeleine” – a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) throughout the 1970s who was granted anonymity in the inquiry as a result of a UCO known as Vince Miller deceiving her into an intimate sexual relationship – shared similar concerns about files containing “information of a very intrusive and personal nature” being retained by authorities.

“Vince Miller was spying on me, that much I know, but the questions I am left with are: when exactly did the authorities start spying on me and with what justification? What events in my life led to this intrusion? I can see in the files that I am the subject of something ‘redacted.’ What has been hidden from me? Who was spying on me then? What other spooks have I been exposed to? Am I still being spied on? If not, when did it stop? It is chilling and sinister,” she said.

“I now wonder what other ‘fictions’ have been perpetrated against others I love, my family and friends, in the name of this spying on me by the state. I have had to consider what hidden impact this may have had on the course of my life and those of my family.”

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Madeleine requested the inquiry to make all information surrounding these events available to her, and that any information currently held is subsequently destroyed and removed from archives, with written proof to confirm.

Langford added: “It is patently obvious that a thread runs through police policies and strategies, from the time when surveillance of myself and my colleagues began, to the present day.” She said she has questioned multiple times whether she is still being surveilled.

“If I was under surveillance in 1970 as a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, am I still under surveillance now? I became far more active in PSC in the early 2000s, following the Second Intifada, than I was in the sixties and seventies – and remain so,” she said.  

“Despite the development of mind-boggling algorithms and digital surveillance techniques, is there any difference between the secret police methods and the harvesting of personal data by means of artificial intelligence?”

Statutory data protection compliance to be considered

According to inquiry counsel David Barr QC, a notable feature of the evidence admitted in the inquiry’s first phase was “how little criminality was reported among the groups that were being infiltrated”.

In his opening statement, he introduced a document from the Home Office from December 1984 entitled Home Office Guidelines on the Work of a Special Branch.

Although it was published shortly after the period being considered in this phase of the inquiry (1972 to 1983), Barr said: “Much of the content is in line with similar older documents that we have published.”

He added: “Of note is the fact that it contains the first substantial guidance that we have obtained on the subject of data protection. We assume that it was the result of the enactment of the first Data Protection Act in 1984.”

The document set out the responsibilities and functions of Special Branch, which included carrying out “naturalisation enquiries” on behalf of the UK’s immigration authorities, assisting the security service in “defending the realm”, and gathering information about threats to public order.

It further outlined what information could be gathered, for what purposes, and whom it could be shared with.

“Data on individuals or organisations should not under any circumstances be collected or held solely on the basis that such a person or organisation supports unpopular causes or on the basis of race or creed,” it said.

“Care should be taken to ensure that only necessary and relevant information is recorded and retained. Each Special Branch should therefore maintain an effective system both for updating information where necessary and for weeding out and destroying information which can no longer be clearly related to the discharge of its functions.”

Barr said the inquiry will consider whether this legal regime made any practical difference to what was recorded and retained by the SDS in “Tranche 2” of proceedings, which will look at the period 1983 to 1992 for the first time, but has not yet been given a specific starting date.

“For the moment, we note that the document permits a comparison between practice prior to 1984 and that which, from then on, ought to have been complied with,” he said.

The first phase of the inquiry, held in November 2020, examined the practices of the SDS from 1968 to 1972. In its third phase, which will conclude Tranche 1, the inquiry will hear from SDS managers for the entire period up to 1983.

The inquiry’s second phase will begin hearing evidence on 26 April 2021.

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