British police inspectors have been building a massive, secret database containing personal information on thousands of otherwise innocent political activists, an investigative report revealed Sunday.
"The hidden apparatus has been constructed to monitor 'domestic extremists', the Guardian can reveal in the first of a three-day series into the policing of protests. Detailed information about the political activities of campaigners is being stored on a number of overlapping IT systems, even if they have not committed a crime."
The UK paper added that the term "domestic extremist" has no legal basis, but is instead intended to tar those who may have participated in something so benign as civil disobedience.
Even merely attending a protest and standing on the outskirts of the crowd can be enough to land one on the National Public Order Intelligence Unit's list of "domestic extremists."
The database, which is operated by some 100 employees, gets £9 million in public funding, the paper reported. In addition to giving officers the ability to search for an "extremist" by name, vehicles associated with individuals tied in to the database are automatically tracked across the country by a system of license plate recognition cameras. In one instance, the paper revealed that a man who attended one protest was stopped by police 25 times in just three years because his vehicle was tagged with a "protest" flag.
"Police surveillance units, known as Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) and Evidence Gatherers, record footage and take photographs of campaigners as they enter and leave openly advertised public meetings," the Guardian added.
The paper further noted that the database was first establish to curb legal infractions being committed by animal rights activists, but has grown outward ever since, even though the groups initially targeted are not nearly as active. Activists are divided up into four groups: Extreme right, extreme left, animal rights and anti-war. Groups roped in to the database even include those that have never been associated with any illegal activity.
"The term 'domestic extremism' is now common currency within the police," a Guardian editorial published Sunday explains. "It is a phrase which shapes how forces seek to control demonstrations. It has led to the personal details and photographs of a substantial number of protesters being stored on secret police databases around the country. There is no official or legal definition of the term. Instead, the police have made a vague stab at what they think it means. Senior officers describe domestic extremists as individuals or groups 'that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign. These people and activities usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process.' They say they are mostly associated with single issues and suggest the majority of protesters are never considered extremists."
Authorities told the Guardian that the public should not be alarmed at the revelation; that the database is for their own safety. They insisted that spying, compiling data on and tracking the movements of political activists is merely meant to protect businesses from financial harm amid political unrest, and to guard against terrorist attacks.