Subject Access Requests – an introduction

Why ask the police for the data they hold about you?

Recent media coverage of undercover surveillance by the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) during the 1990s, which targeted Stephen Lawrence’s family, police custody death campaigners and organisations, only tells part of the story. To some extent, the focus on this period has distracted attention away from a far bigger surveillance operation, throughout England and Wales, than the London-centred activities of the SDS.

Over the last decade, the trawl for data about ‘domestic extremists’ across the country has been carried out by a number of secretive units based within the Association of Chief Police Officers. It was one of these units – the National Public Order Intelligence Unit – that undercover officer Mark Kennedy worked for. In 2010 they were merged into a single National Domestic Extremism Unit under the control of the Metropolitan Police, which has continued to gather vast quantities of intelligence data and sift it for patterns and connections, supposedly to predict how individuals and groups will act. A recent estimate suggests that secret police databases may hold information on up to 9000 people, many with no criminal records, although the number could be far greater.

Netpol wants to see these databases shut down, because there is every reason to believe that data gathered in secret, with no checks and balances and no effective accountability, is not only unnecessary and intrusive but also riddled with gossip and rumour.

To demonstrate this, we need your help. If you believe your personal data may have been gathered and held by the National Domestic Extremism Unit or on CRIMINT, a criminal intelligence database that also includes information about protesters and in 2012 contained 14 million records, then you are entitled to see what information about you is held by the police. You can access this information by making a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act.

Who should apply?

As the process involves handing over a certain amount of personal information (including your address and your date and place of birth), it is only worthwhile submitting a Subject Access Request if you think there is a reasonable chance that your details are held on police records. There is no point feeding the surveillance officers with information they don’t already possess.

Remember there is no official or legal definition of “domestic extremism”. It has been used by the police to describe protesters who use direct action as a way to bring about political change, or groups whose demonstrations are thought to contain a risk of public disorder. The Association of Chief Police Officers insist that it “only applies to individuals or groups whose activities go outside the normal democratic process and engage in crime and disorder in order to further their campaign”, but the term has been used to cover most people who has been involved in recent years in significant or effective protests against the state or multinational corporations.

If you are worried that making a Subject Access request might itself lead to your inclusion on a ‘domestic extremist’ database, you need to carefully balance the possibility that your campaigning activities mean your personal data is already held by the police and how much you want to know about the accuracy (or otherwise) of that data. Remember that you are also under absolutely no obligation to share the results of a Subject Access Request with anyone. However, if you discover inaccuracies or trivial information in any data that the police hold, we would like to work with you, in confidence, to expose this.

Ultimately, the final decision is yours.


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