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15 September 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Caught on camera

"I am a peaceful protester. I have no criminal record. Yet the police have been photographing me on

By Matt Salusbury

”What, you mean the police can take your picture in the street, just like that?” That’s the usual reaction when I show friends the photo accompanying this article. It was taken by the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Intelligence Unit in January 2002. Although the police have been photographing me on average once every two months since 1999, they say it is the only photograph they have of me, and that prior to my request for data held on me, they had not been able to put a name to the photo.

The police defence for taking my picture is the same as that used by the paparazzi when they snap celebrities – you can’t stop someone photographing you in a public place. My plod paparazzi stand around in the street – in uniform – waiting to snap comparative nonentities like me arriving at public meetings and benefit gigs for May Day, for Reclaim the Streets and for anti-arms trade protests. We’re not talking about “passive surveillance” by city-centre CCTV here. These are not images acquired accidentally when someone walks past a pole with a camera on it. These are images deliberately acquired. On some occasions, police minders instructed the photographers: “Film him.” This is the surreal world of police forward intelligence teams, or FITs.

The teams typically consist of a hired civilian photographer in a special uniform – a black jacket emblazoned with “Police Photographer” and a similarly marked black baseball cap. The photographers are equipped with an expensive-looking rig featuring a flash-equipped film camera at one end and a digital camera at the other, presumably for more efficient electronic archiving of images. FIT members are themselves quite camera-shy and are accompanied by at least two police officer minders. A freelance photographer friend told me that the snappers would cost at least £200 to hire for an afternoon. Larger FITs also include uniformed note-taking coppers. When there’s a perceived threat to key government buildings – such as unlicensed demonstrations near parliament – the Met’s Diplomatic Protection Group also has an officer present outside activists’ meetings.

The teams treat their “targets” with an ironic, old-fashioned courtesy. There’s a rumour in activist circles that the reason they tip their caps to people arriving at meetings is that they have pictures identifying key “targets” stuck inside their hats.

While the police are entitled to take my photo in the street, I am entitled to get hold of a copy, thanks to the Data Protection Act 1998. I have the right to make a “subject access request” to any organisation that might hold data on me, as long as I send a tenner. I sent my request with a passport photo, a three-page summary of the dates and times the Met had snapped me, details of what I was wearing at the time, and the shoulder numbers of the officers present. I also requested my Police National Computer records – clean as a whistle, no big surprises there – as well as the docket from a search for drugs or weapons made on my person a couple of years back, and anything else they might have on me.

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To make a subject access request to the police is to enter Kafkaesque territory. Scotland Yard’s Data Protection Unit told me to fill in form 3019A, which asked me to quote the crime number for the particular offence, incident or reported crime I was involved in. I left this section blank, as in my case there was no crime, and instead wrote “photographed on several occasions”. Then I had to take my passport and my tenner along to my local cop shop.

Six weeks later, the Met replied. There was a single photo of me, scanned on to a sheet of A4 paper. It was stapled to the back of the baffling “standard police notification for the purposes of policing”, which appeared to list the sort of information that the police are allowed to hold on me, including the category “C211: Sexual life”. The police also sent me several pages of little scene-setting introductions that led into what seemed to be short extracts from “crimint” (criminal intelligence) reports.

At a conservative estimate, the Metropolitan Police take my picture every two months, so I was puzzled when they sent just this single photo with my “photographic database reference number” (1481). “Information that could identify third parties has been edited out,” they stated, and that may explain what happened to the other photos – they didn’t have to tell me whether or not any such edited data actually existed. Possibly, too, the crimint reports had already been deleted after being reviewed, as required by police guidelines – but those guidelines leave it to the cops to decide the criteria for retaining data.

The Met said that it would cost “disproportionate effort” to look for more data on me, and asked me to supply photos of exactly what I looked like at the dates mentioned. So it seemed that the police were now asking me to do their intelligence work for them, giving the impression that poor, overworked coppers would have to sort through numerous boxes of photos or sit through hours of videos, waiting for my face to pop up. If the police really are that ineffective at retaining and archiving data, then law-abiding citizens should be very afraid indeed.

In any case, they have face-recognition software that can perform the task of matching photos held on a database in seconds. Commercially available face-recognition software systems known to have been used – or at least tested – by the police include the FaceIt software engine and the £65,000 Mandrake package. Police magazine of October 1998 stated that Mandrake can handle variables such as “facial hair, spectacles, hat and so on” and can take into account head orientation, lighting conditions, skin colour, facial expressions and ageing. Picking out my face from the Met’s archive should have been a cinch, especially after a summer evening in July 2001 when officers from the Tactical Support Group took my picture and noted the details of my bank card as they went through my pockets outside the Italian embassy.

Not satisfied with the Met’s reply, I applied for an “assessment” from the Information Commissioner’s office, which enforces the Data Protection Act. A “request for assessment” form asked me to list alleged breaches of the act and how they affected me. The form states: “The fact that you may have had a lengthy correspondence with the data controller is not of itself evidence of damage or distress.” The commissioner’s office did tell me it was displeased with the Met’s excuse that my request “need not be complied with if the supply of information would involve disproportionate effort”. It’s an excuse the Information Commissioner has heard from the police before and legally covers only the provision of a hard copy of the data they have been asked for. Some time in the future, the Met may have to take out its appointments diary and arrange for me to go and view my data in person.

The police seem reluctant to use intelligence gathered through their forward intelligence teams in court. There have been very few arrests, let alone charges or convictions, arising from the teams’ activities. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, said the anti-capitalist demonstrations of May Day 2002 had produced so few crimes and arrests – 54 arrests and seven reported crimes – that they were “statistically insignificant”.

Why, then, does the Met bother to stand around photographing people in the street? The intelligence-gathering value of uniformed surveillance has to be doubted. Everybody involved knows they’re being photographed, and activists are always complaining that the same old faces turn up for meetings again and again – so the police can hardly be gathering much new intelligence. The targets speculate that the real purpose is a Scooby-Doo tactic – to scare people away, especially any hesitant new faces thinking of getting involved in anti-capitalist groups.

Another possibility is that the police want to discourage pub landlords from allowing such groups to hold meetings. Or perhaps they just want to alarm local communities. Most pub punters react with bewilderment rather than hostility towards activists meeting in their boozer. One old geezer in the White Horse pub in Camberwell, south London, remarked that his was a neighbourhood with a serious crime problem. Yet he never saw police patrols there until there was a May Day meeting and a couple of inspectors stood outside his local all evening.

However much they flatter themselves, anti-capitalist activists are hardly in the same league as al-Qaeda or the Real IRA. But where were the police on 21 December last year – the busiest shopping day of 2002 and tipped as the most likely date for a terrorist strike on London? The police were on Oxford Street, with not one but two FITs, snapping away at a handful of anti-capitalist activists who were giving away stuff to any passers-by who wanted it. I was photographed giving away old clothes, paperbacks, toys and back issues of magazines. The police recorded that I “was taking notes of officers’ shoulder numbers”, information which they revealed to me in a crimint report that I hadn’t even asked them for.

Critics of “passive” CCTV surveillance point to studies which show that better street lighting has a far bigger effect on crime reduction than CCTV. In the same way, police surveillance of activists should raise concern not only about civil liberties but about what seems a bizarre use of police resources.

Copyright: Matt Salusbury

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