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Get yourself a record

Observations on police databases

Are you struggling to recall whether you protested outside the Nike store in central London way back in 2002? Maybe you’re down the pub swapping anecdotes with activist friends, and you’re a bit fuzzy about whether it was in 2005 that you were a legal observer at the arms fair protest, or 2007? There’s no need to be uncertain any longer. Now, for only a tenner, you can get a handy list of all the protests you’ve been on – from the police.

During a trial last December, a member of the Kentish Town constabulary let slip that there exists a Metropolitan Police database “on which you can check what demonstration an individual has been on”. I lost no time in writing to the Met, using the Data Protection Act 1998 to request any references to myself on the database, “Crimint” – short for “criminal intelligence” – and enclosing the requisite £10 cheque to cover data processing costs.

In return, I received a page and three-quarters of data. It turns out that I have been spotted, and logged, by police on 13 occasions in the past seven years. Most of these sightings were at demonstrations, although there was an undated entry noting my “overt filming in the street outside LARC” (the London Action Resource Centre meeting space in Whitechapel, east London). Apparently, police photographers of the Forward Intelligence Team had snapped me arriving at public meetings, though the Met’s information access manager confirmed that “no images of you are held on the Crimint database”.

The police had logged the make of my bicycle, and, when I identified myself as a journalist at the DSEi arms fair in 2007, they logged the number of my NUJ press card. They showed particular interest in documenting my presence at demonstrations as a legal observer, “wearing a legal observer’s tabard bearing the number 4”.

Given the taxpayers’ money and police resources expended on gathering intelligence about me, there were some surprisingly big mistakes. My surname was misspelt and there were details of an arrest that never happened. The police once took my particulars with a view to a possible summons when I was a legal observer kettled at Parliament Square, but the database recorded that I “had been arrested on 09/10/2006, for participating in an unauthorised march”. I complained, and the helpful information access manager has assured me there’s a letter on the way that will rectify the error on Crimint.

The obvious question that the existence of the database raises is, “Why?” The covering letter said the data is held under the “‘Standard Police Notification’ for the purposes of Policing”, but I’m struggling to work out what any of this has to do with policing as most citizens would understand it. The database may be called Crimint, but none of the intelligence it holds about me is remotely connected with anything criminal. I was only ever “seen” or “identified”.

Stranger still was the caveat that accompanied the document detailing how the Met had been spying on me for the previous seven years: “Please note this letter does not constitute a certificate of good character.”

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!