Lost in the Matrix – how police surveillance is mapping protest movements

Friday, 2 September 2022 — NetPol

How can British police, who have struggled for so long to justify its surveillance on alleged “extremists”, ever hope to adequately categorise something as subjective as people’s political opinions? As Netpol asked in March 2021, how do campaigners become “aggravated activists” – the new label applied to those taking action that challenges state and corporate interests?

thematic review on “how effectively the police deal with protests” by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services confirmed, in 2021, what we had long suspected – that “aggravated activist” was the police’s replacement for the much-maligned term “domestic extremist”.

Now for the first time, a recent report released by Parliament’s Security and Intelligence Committee has given us the Matrix – more precisely the “threshold and terminology matrix” that determines who is potentially categorised as an “aggravated activist” and at what level: low, moderate or substantial.

How campaigners are categorised will lead, in turn, to the kind of policing operation they can expect to have used against them.

Although presented in the Security and Intelligence Committee report as primarily concerning far-right movements, this information is vital for anyone taking part in protests across Britain and who is at risk of oppressive policing, from surveillance to criminalisation for peaceful protest.

What is the Matrix?

The “threshold and terminology matrix” sets out what its creators have defined as “activities in furtherance of ideology”. These include:

  • Lawful activism
  • Low-level aggravated activism
  • High-level aggravated activism

Alongside this, there is an ideological framework of intended outcomes that are “substantial, moderate and low”. This sets out how and when your actions fit into the above categories.

There’s also a severe category where actions are classed as terrorism. As far as we know, there has only been one recent prosecution for what the police and security services call “Left, Anarchist and Single-Issue Terrorism” (LASIT) – and that led to a not-guilty verdict. However, there have been several terrorism prosecutions related to the Kurdish Freedom Movement, especially linked to people travelling to Rojava. The majority of these have been unsuccessful – but it is currently unclear if, and where, these fit into the LASIT framework.

Significantly, the government’s education materials for schools on the LASIT “threat” is unable to point to any examples that are either from the twenty-first century or from Britain rather than other countries.

Low-level aggravated activism

The matrix defines the ideological outcomes for low-level aggravated activism as resulting in either “a change to the behaviour of the population (e.g. not to use products tested on animals) or change to specific government policy (e.g. fracking)”, or “the change of economic system or the insistence that particular section of society (e.g. race or religion) conform to certain values”.

From single-issue campaigns to anti-capitalism, there are numerous legitimate political aims contained within such a broad definition. In particular, the climate crisis is pushing demands into the mainstream for far-reaching changes to the current economic system.

In 2019, a statement signed by 11,000 scientists called for “major transformations in the ways our global society functions” and said that “economic growth must be quickly curtailed to maintain long-term sustainability of the biosphere”.

The “threshold and terminology matrix” says, however, that taking action in support of such aims rather than simply talking about them – something that does not appear to have any effect on governments – will push campaigners from so-called lawful activism to low-level aggravated activism.

This happens if they take part in “unlawful or criminal activity” and “activity beyond peaceful protest” (something that is not explained). Inevitably this means direct action and civil disobedience, although neither are excluded from the protection of Article 11 rights to freedom of assembly.

As the police often interpret unlawful or criminal to apply to any movement they see as lacking legitimacy, this potentially means any group of campaigners whom senior officers decide to routinely arrest. We have already seen how most of the protest-related changes to the law in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act were the result of lobbying by senior officers for more powers to deal with groups like Extinction Rebellion.

High-level aggravated activism

Although focusing on threats from right-wing groups, the bad news for anarchists is that the matrix specifically identifies them as a higher-level threat. It describes “dismantling of the state or rule of law (eg anarchism)” as a “substantial” ideological outcome and therefore “high-level aggravated activism”.

What this means is that activism involving anarchist ideals has been placed in the same “intended ideological outcome” category as violent racism seeking “the death or subjugation of a specific group or significant proportion of the population (e.g. a race of religion)”.

Leaving aside for a moment the British government’s own willingness to quietly drop the “rule of law” from its objectives in negotiating trade deals with repressive petro-states, this is all extraordinarily subjective – and shows once again just how political these categories are.

Meanwhile, any action that successfully targets companies and economic interests puts campaigners firmly in the same high-level category. The matrix defines this as:

Criminality or activity that has i) a significant impact on community tensions that could lead directly to violence against that community or ii) a significant impact on UK businesses.

Activism successfully targeting business interests, even if it is not necessarily criminal, is considered by the state as just as dangerous as seeking to incite violence.

Why does this matter?

This way of categorising campaigners matters because it defines how organisations and individuals are policed. With the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the proposed Public Order Bill currently in parliament, the government is actively seeking to criminalise more and more protesters.

Senior officers using their political beliefs to try and label ours is a way to enable and justify the continuing funding and resources of the surveillance state.

A political environment that is increasingly intolerant of protest will bring even more people into the subjective ideological framework of the matrix and mean they are treated as aggravated activists.

If you are in the category of low-level aggravated activism, you are likely to come to the attention of the National Police Coordination Centre and face increased surveillance.

If you are labelled “high-level”, however, this means you are dealt with by officers from Counter-Terrorism policing and are more likely to face harassment, surveillance and disruption.

If the Public Order Bill becomes law, it may also mean you are more likely to face targeting under its stop and search provisions or through Serious Disruption Prevention Orders.

Good and bad protesters

Senior officers using their political beliefs to try and label ours is a way to enable and justify the continuing funding and resources of the surveillance state.

This is why we argue that understanding the consequences of intelligence gathering is just as vital as knowing the law when defending the right to dissent. Protest is protected by national and international law and is not illegal. We cannot allow the police to arbitrarily divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters in this way

Netpol’s Defend Dissent campaign argues our strength is in our collective solidarity and we need to monitor the impact of the new legislation and document any incidences of #BullshitArrests.

However, monitoring the way the police use surveillance on political and social movements is just as important. If you have evidence you have been targeted, please contact us in confidence at netpoladmin@protonmail.com

Thanks to the Article 11 Trust Research Fellow, Rachel Currie, for assistance with research for this post

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