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Surveillance of activists

Assume that there is surveillance of some type going on if you are an activist. Police have always gathered information by secret means and with advanced technology it is far easier.

Some surveillance of protests is obvious. Members of the police camera unit will stand aside from the action and continually video everything that happens.

Activists should also be aware that police special branches (or the Protective Security Intelligence Group in Victoria) and ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) collect information including videos of individuals and groups, mostly from the left, trade unions, human rights campaigners and ethnic communities. Australia and Victoria have a long history of political surveillance and infiltration by police.

This is not only done at demonstrations: it includes monitoring of websites, email lists, social media, meetings, phone taps and physical surveillance outside homes or offices.

Heidi Boghosian, Director of the National Lawyers Guild in the United States has said that the two most  significant trends in surveillance of activists are “One, the use of high-technology and sophisticated military equipment [by police], and two, cooperation between law enforcement and the private business sector, especially with regard to surveillance/spying.” (i)

Police have access to technology to monitor protesters such as facial recognition, Internet data mining, and, in the United States, even drones.

Data available to police, security and other government agencies under Australian federal law (2012) includes phone and internet account information, outward and inward call details, phone and internet access location data, and details of IP addresses visited.

Access to this information is authorised by senior police officers or officials rather than by judicial warrant. Data is also accessed by state police and anti-corruption bodies, government departments and revenue offices, and many other official bodies.

The largest user of telecommunications data in 2010-11 was the Victoria Police with 65,703 authorisations. It has reported an increase of more than 50 per cent in authorisations over two years. NSW Police reported 43,416 authorisations over the same period. (ii)

Telecommunications data is also accessed by ASIO but public statistics are not available.

(i) Punishing Protest, Policing Dissent: What is the Justice System For? by Erik Hoffner |

(ii) Police spy on web, phone usage with no warrants by Phillip Dorling at

Also see

Private & corporate surveillance

Private Intelligence gathering companies operate in Australia.  These companies, such as NOSIC the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (Australia) often have contracts with police, government or corporation and will extensively monitor, collate, assess and report on publically accessible information about individuals or organisations.  It is ‘open source intelligence’. For example; a private intelligence gathering company may monitor websites, social media, email lists, media releases, and any public documents relating to an activist campaign, compile it into reports and sell that information to police or companies. NOSIC proudly provides services such as ''issue monitoring'', ''tactical intelligence'', ''threat analysis'' and ''trend analysis and forecasting focus on emerging patterns and trends in activism''.

In the United Kingdom in late 2003, private intelligence gathering companies were uncovered by Sunday Times investigations spying on and infiltrating activist groups. R&CA Publications was monitoring the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and other anti-militarism organisations. The agency employed undercover agents to infiltrate the pressure groups on behalf of BAE, then called British Aerospace. Files and intelligence was passed on regularly to security companies such as Group 4 and the British Government.

Governments pass info onto private sector as well - FOI documents show the Energy Security Branch of Minister Martin Ferguson's department was proactive in ensuring the Australian Energy Market Operator, Macquarie Generation and TransGrid were warned of a ''peaceful mass action'' at the Bayswater power station in NSW in 2010. (i)

On the street level - private security cameras are increasingly being used to monitor protests and footage can be passed to police if requested or criminal conduct arises. The City of Melbourne Council has an extensive network of surveillance cameras in the Melbourne CBD. These have been used to cover political protests and footage of protests has been passed on to police. Most large corporate buildings now also have security cameras that monitor doorways, foyers and entrances. There are also over 100 CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras located throughout Melbourne's private operated Federation Square for instance which feed into a 24 hour Security Control Room.

A good general guideline for activists is:

  1. Assume that police are monitoring online communication, assume your phones and text messages are being observed, and that anything planned in an open, public meeting is known. For most open, democratically organised movements, campaigns and actions this is business as usual.
  2. If you do want to organise something that depends on surprise, simply don't do it on the internet, on the phone or in an open meeting.  Read more about security culture - here is a good resource -   by Ruckus Society
  3. If the surveillance is harassing, intimidating or impacting on your work, record everything to look for patterns. Discuss and analysis what is going on so you have the clearest possible picture. Analysis is vital for getting your security precautions right.
  4. Seek legal advice as soon as any surveillance is detected.  Avenues such as Freedom of Information requests or civil suits may be possible.  Legal support will be a part of your support structure.
  5. Set up support structures. Tell others who you trust, other campaigners and activists and allies such as parliamentarians, priests, Imams or other community leaders and ask each for specific support.  The reason for this is not to isolate yourself but to systematically increase your profile and links with others in society. It signals to the people undertaking the surveillance that you have support and serves to deter further harassment - repression aims to marginalise you politically - it is important to assertively counter this.  
  6. Likewise - if you know of others who are experiencing some form of surveillance or harassment then offering genuine solidarity and support is vital.
  7. You or your group can then make a clear decision to expose the surveillance to the public and the media.  Provide evidence to journalists, prepare and release a public document.  Expose the surveillance as an injustice and demand redress publically and in conjunction with legal action.

(i) Spies eye green protesters by Philip Dorling at

Political surveillance in Victoria - a recent history

On October 6 1997, The Age newspaper in Melbourne published information, documents and allegations leaked from the Victorian Police Force, presumably by a former police officer or an internal whistle blower, that sent shock waves through Victoria's diverse social change networks.

The leaks about Victoria's Secret Police were front page for a week, detailing how undercover police officers had infiltrated, spied on, bugged, taped and collected files on just about every group in society that had something to say. The surprise for many activists was not that the Victorian Police were infiltrating and spying, but the extent to which the covert police targeted relatively mainstream and 'conservative' lobby groups. Aside from that, the leaks revealed a fascinating insight into police operational procedures and the way police view all activists as potential 'threats to society'.

The confidential dossiers, records and files obtained by the Age date from 1985, compiled after the then Victorian Government disbanded the Special Branch in 1983, and cover the years up until 1992 when the Unit's role was taken over by the 'Protective Security Intelligence Group' who continue to gather information today.

The Melbourne Peace Fleet, The Melbourne Rainforest Action Group, Friends Of the Earth, the East Gippsland Coalition, Duck Rescue and Animal Liberation, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society and many other groups and campaigns were all infiltrated by undercover police officers at various times, and had dossiers compiled on their activities and files kept on many individual members.

Alongside these groups were a few far-right and neo-fascist groups such as National Action. However, there were also hundreds of other groups such as the Council of Single Mothers, The Australian Conservation Society, Friends of the ABC, Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, Koorie Information Centre, community legal centres, feminist groups, migrant groups, HIV/AIDS and gay activist groups, tenants groups, community radio stations 3CR, 3RRR and 3JJJ, disabled groups and elderly groups.

On the massive but incomplete police list of 1240 individuals obtained by The Age are teachers, lecturers, trade unionists, and even Democrat and Independent politicians, church ministers, an Order of Australia recipient and many names of nonviolent activists involved in the groups above.

The activities of secret police units like this represent only a part of the wide spectrum of police harassment and organised repression of social change groups. The acts of bugging, phone tapping, use of listening devices, infiltrating and compiling of files not only constitute an invasion of privacy but can also be a subversion of the state's own laws and politically motivated corruption. In many cases the activities described were 'illegal', operated without the knowledge or consent of the then government, in fact, against the stated wishes of the Cain administration, which made it clear that it would not tolerate surveillance of community groups when it disbanded the Special Branch. It was alleged by the former head of the police complaints authority that senior police defied state government orders to incinerate thousands of secret Special Branch files and instead had them stored in suburban police stations and continued updating and using them. (The Age 16/12/97) What is not clear is whether or not, or at what level, the government knew about these activities, or whether senior sections of the Victorian Police were operating and giving orders independently.

The existence of files such as these is pertinent to activists for several reasons. By remaining where they are, they pose an ongoing threat that they will be used by a future authoritarian government. Secondly, the activities of the undercover operatives often involved actual internal meddling or sabotage within the activist group. For example, according to a former member of the unit, an undercover officer infiltrated the Melbourne Peace Fleet and managed to sabotage its ability to campaign by almost sending it broke. The Peace Fleet, which blockaded US nuclear warships in Port Phillip Bay, was persuaded by the undercover officer to spend most of its money on paying for rubber boats and canoes for one large action. Strapped for cash, the group was unable to mount an effective protest for several years, the former member said.

According to Joseph O'Reilly, then from Liberty Victoria the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties,

"the deeply rooted culture of excess [in the Victorian Police] has given birth to actions with grave implications for fundamental human rights and democracy. To bug, tap, and infiltrate meetings and organisations without the approval of a judge or magistrate is to open the floodgates to totally unfettered police powers, which can be used against anyone, anywhere."

In other cases, information from undercover operatives was passed on to security staff, and other police units, to diffuse the impacts of several actions that were supposedly planned in secret. The records show that operatives were so successful in infiltrating groups that many became trusted members, taking part in planning meetings, drawing up membership lists and helping the groups in their day-to-day activities.

Over a four year period up to 1990, the police unit worked closely with Army Intelligence units and ASIO, often swapping information and jointly "assessing" the peace movement in Victoria. In July 1989, police infiltrated a Nurrungar planning meeting at RMIT and passed the info and photos to ASIO and Army Intelligence. The former member said the ASIO database of domestic-level protesters must be massive. The unit also briefed and passed information on activists to interstate police forces such as the identities and activities of Victorian conservationists working in NSW forest campaigns.

The unit conducted numerous searches without warrants, hid secret files from the police ombudsman during an investigation, and routinely photographed protests, marches and rallies, including the Palm Sunday, Reclaim the Night and May Day marches, candlelight vigils and even the family-oriented 'Teddy Bears Picnic' organised by the Victorian Childcare Action Group. The unit often sought information that the police could use in the media to discredit activists groups, particularly those involved in legal rights, police powers or campaigning about police shootings. In some cases the unit was involved in spying upon and deliberately undermining community efforts to bring other police to justice.

Community groups in Victoria reacted angrily to the revelations. Holding a joint media conference on 7 October 1997, a coalition of ten groups, including Friends Of the Earth and Liberty Victoria (Victorian Council for Civil Liberties), condemned the activities of the secret police and called for a full judicial inquiry into the Operations Intelligence Unit and the current version. This call was joined by many other groups and individuals over the next few days, including the former premier John Cain, and 500 people attended a public meeting. Many groups and individuals lodged Freedom of Information Requests to obtain their files and a public campaign against the existence of 'Secret Police' was organised by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

For activists, the leaked information serves as a valuable insight into the culture and attitude of police, and into the range and extent of their abilities to spy, sabotage, undermine and provoke violence from within a campaign. In the face of such information it is well worth remembering that all governments, no matter how openly 'democratic', have both overt and covert aims and methods of achieving them. Also, for all their efforts and expense, they have consistently managed to fail to stop ordinary people struggling for and creating change.

Political Surveillance in Victoria adapted from an article by Anthony Kelly, Published in Nonviolence Today 57.

Also see Dealing with surveillance

Activist security resources

Security Culture - A Comprehensive guide for activists in Australia

This website provides information about Security Culture throughout activist groups in Australia which may be working on addressing various issues such as social justice, equality, climate change, human rights, radical environmentalism, anti-globalisation; and many others. It also offers a free download of the information in pdf format.

Free resources to download including A Practical Security Handbook for Activists and Campaigns; Infiltrators, Informers and Grasses; and A Guide to Secure Meetings in Pubs. The Security Handbook covers a range of security issues for activists, from media strategy to planning actions, to dealing with surveillance and infiltration. Readers would do well to heed the warnings included in Infiltrators, Informers and Grasses – don’t become paranoid, don’t gossip, and never make accusations about people without significant investigation and evidence.

Security Culture for Activists

A resource by The Ruckus Society, walks activists through security measures we can take to safeguard ourselves, including helpful advice about people, groups and data security.

Digital Security

Digital Security for Activists

Written for activists by activists and put together by Riseup, this is a 60 page zine including personal stories and practical advice about digital security and online organizing.

Security in-a-box

Tools and tactics for your digital security a collaborative effort of the Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line. It was created to meet the digital security and privacy needs of advocates and human rights defenders.

Surveillance Self-Defense Project

Resources from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Security for Human Rights Defenders

Workbook on security: practical steps for human rights defenders at risk

Published by Front Line this Workbook is informed by the experience of human rights defenders around the world, many of who operate in extremely repressive and risky environments. The Workbook takes you through the steps to producing a security plan – for yourself and for your organisation. It follows a systematic approach for assessing your security situation and developing risk and vulnerability reduction strategies and tactics.

Integrated Security: The Manual  

Integrated Security Workshops have been developed for women human rights activists and excellent workshop materials are available for download.

New Tactics in Human Rights 

This excellent website includes a wide range of resources. Two online international dialogues have discussed security issues: Staying Safe, Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders and Being Well and Staying Safe.

Compliled by Anthony Kelly - 2012