‘Spy cops’ victims share ongoing data protection concerns

by Jeremy

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 Undercover 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 when laws were being introduced to govern the use of personal information.

Matthew Ryder QC, 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 has a Mongol child’. A chief inspector and chief superintendent signed off this information.

The intelligence report was sent to the security service.” In phase one of the inquiry, Ryder previously said 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.

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