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London's Police Database of Extremists Also Includes Politicians and Activists

People caught in the dragnet say the Metropolitan Police's dossiers aren't even that useful.

Image: Dave Crosby/Flickr

London's Metropolitan Police have been keeping tabs on two Green Party politicians as part of its controversial domestic extremism database, despite neither individual having a criminal record, according to the Guardian.

Through the use of data protection laws, Jenny Jones, a London Green Party peer, and Ian Driver, a local councillor for the party, obtained files on themselves held in the database, which is supposedly used to monitor activists who use criminal means to push their ideas.

Jones, it was revealed, has been monitored over an 11 year period, including when she campaigned to be London's mayor. The sort of information gathered exists mostly in the public domain: tweets copied from her account, and descriptions of her appearances at protests against the Iraq war; it's all information related to her work as a politician, and nothing illegal.

Jones—a vocal critic of police surveillance—described the file on her as “pathetic” in an opinion piece published in the British newspaper.

The working definition of "domestic extremism" used by the Metropolitan Police states that it "relates to the actions of groups or individuals who commit or plan serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint," according to a Freedom of Information Request by independent police watchdog Netpol.

As broad as this definition is, two politicians that have no record of criminal behaviour still don't fit into it. “Even if that is what you're saying [extremism] is, the people that you're gathering information on do not fit that criteria,” Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe told me.

The pair of politicians aren't the first questionable targets of police surveillance. Blowe's work on the Olympics earned him a spot in it. When he received the file, the information was “complete rubbish,” containing inaccurate information on things that he claims he never said.

He told me that the details of UK Uncut—an anti-tax avoidance NGO—and environmental campaigners have also been stored in the database. 

There was also John Catt, a pensioner who was subjected to surveillance after he was found sketching a demonstration. He recently won an appeal to have his details removed. However, police have lodged their own appeal in the UK supreme court, according to the Guardian.

Essentially, the purpose of this database is “gathering information on anybody who is involved in some form of protest,” Blowe said. The Guardian estimates that the database contains information on 9,000 “domestic extremists.”

The biggest problem is that this is all done in secret. Unless an individual goes through the process of claiming their file—which took 6 months for Blowe—then they will never know of their presence in the database.

When people apply for this information, public organisations are legally obliged to reply within 14 days, Blowe explained. But in practice, those requesting their file are given a standard letter saying that the Metropolitan Police will take another 8 weeks.

The Met, according to Blowe, are “routinely breaking the law around the data protection act.”

Netpol are seeking a judicial review against the Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police on the legality of the database.

Jones summed up the bizarre situation in her comment piece. “When the police's work on domestic extremism involves spying on elected politicians and artistic pensioners, they have lost sight of what they are there to do," she said.