18 January 2012 ~ 4 Comments

Spy vs Activist: Managing Security Risks


Recently it came to light that a minister in the Australian government, Martin Ferguson, has advocated for increased surveillance of anti-coal and other climate activists, and for stronger penalties for actions taken on energy infrastructure, after being approached by energy companies. While the direct link between industry targeted by activists, a government minister, and resulting surveillance of activists is noteworthy, it is nothing new for activists to be monitored by either police, ASIO or private companies.

The ‘open source intelligence’ activities of NOSIC (the company contracted by the Australian Federal Police to monitor activists) appear to mostly be tracking online activities and social networks for example on Facebook. We must assume that this kind of monitoring has been going on for many years, as well as less frequent but more invasive practices such as phone-tapping, bugging, and infiltration of activist groups by undercover agents.

These latest revelations have heightened awareness in Australia around issues of activist surveillance and security.

Surveillance of activists is undertaken for different reasons:

  • to gather information;
  • to gather evidence for prosecution;
  • to tip off the targets of action (as is the intention of the NOSIC monitoring – to notify electricity companies and others of potential actions);
  • to cause division and ineffectiveness within activist groups;
  • to disrupt the external activities of activist groups (eg ‘agent provocateurs’ espousing the use of violence); or
  • to intimidate activists into taking less action.

How can activist groups respond? One option is to ‘call the bluff’ on repression. If one of the intentions behind surveillance is to intimidate activists into taking less action – respond with more! Quit Coal organised a clever and funny snap action at Martin Ferguson’s office, Occupy Melbourne rallied, and a National Check In With Martin Ferguson Day was held. The story about NOSIC was a valuable political opportunity to highlight the extent to which Martin Ferguson acts in the interests of the fossil fuel lobby and against the interests of his own constituents and the wellbeing of the broader community and the environment.

Another response is to plan and prepare to protect the security of your group and its members. Depending on how public your group is, and the kind of activities it engages in, will determine how much of a priority you make security.

There are limited resources available that focus on activist surveillance and security and very little I have found written for an Australian context. Here is a collection of what I’ve managed to track down. I’ll update this page with more resources as I become aware of them, so please comment below or email me if you have other suggestions. These resources are provided for your consideration – to learn from the experiences of other activists and if necessary modify the practices of your group.

Remember, paranoia is never a useful response!

“Unfounded paranoia is not helpful to anyone but your enemies. Indeed, paranoia is not part of the security process; it is an unhelpful state of mind often built on emotion. Your fears need to be grounded in facts and rational consideration to be part of your security in a useful way.
Fortunately, the problem of insiders working against us is not as big as we might suppose, and those who sponsor them spread disinformation about the extent of it. It suits their purpose to keep people guessing. It is always good to remember there has been and remains a long history of successful campaigns and actions despite the informers operating inside our groups.”
Infiltrators, Informers and Grasses: how, why and what to do if your group is targeted, page 2, download from ActivistSecurity.org

Articles about NOSIC

Australian activist legal rights

US & UK Activist Security Resources

  • Security Culture for Activists – A resource by The Ruckus Society, written by Jess Bell and Dan Spalding. This guide walks activists through security measures we can take to safeguard ourselves, including helpful advice about people (manage emotions; be nice and supportive; stop bad behaviour; consider recruitment; watch your language; “need-to-know”; decision-making and democracy) and data security.

“Security is a process that protects you in some fashion, whether in the run up to, during or after the event(s) you are involved in. This means, that security is there to facilitate the smooth operation of your action, campaign, etc. and help keep everyone safe… There is no such thing as a 100% fail‐safe system. There is always some risk; and security processes help reduce that risk to an acceptable level. It is up to you to define what the acceptable level of risk is and how best you can deal with it. Security is not a single thing; it is a process and a state of mind.”
A Practical Security Handbook for Activists and Campaigns (v 2.7),  page 3, download from ActivistSecurity.org

  • ActivistSecurity.org – This UK site includes 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 resources have been put together by ‘UK activists who have successfully campaigned for over a decade in the face of increasing repression from the state and corporations.’ 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.

Digital Security

  • Communication SecurityA primer on surveillance and security by Riseup. These resources look at different aspects of security – human, device, message and network. The Riseup Collective is an autonomous body based in Seattle with collective members world wide which provides communication and computer resources to allies engaged in struggles against capitalism and other forms of oppression.
  • 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. Includes a How-to Booklet, which addresses a number of important digital security issues, and a collection of Hands-on Guides, each with particular freeware or open source software tool, as well as instructions on how you can use that tool to secure your computer, protect your information or maintain the privacy of your Internet communication.

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.

“Is security an absence of risk? Or being able to manage risk? Obviously by choosing to be a HRD working for the rights of other people, individuals and organisations have taken on certain risks. These will vary from country to country and context to context and will vary over time. Defenders have an obligation to themselves and the communities on whose behalf they work to pay attention to security. It is not a question of being self-interested but of ensuring the continuation of the work on behalf of others. It is about caring for the victims even more. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
A quote from a human rights defender in  Europe, from the Workbook on Security.

  • Integrated Security: The Manual  — Defending human rights is vital work performed all over the world. It is difficult and often dangerous. Integrated Security Workshops have been developed for women human rights activists and excellent workshop materials written by Jane Barry are available for download.. The workshops cover understanding integrated security; assessing challenges and threats; contextual analysis; building resilience – developing relevant security and well-being strategies; international protection and support mechanisms; and recommendations for next steps (individual, organisational and movement level).

Other resources

Spying overlaps with other anti-democratic activities to undermine social movements such as strategic litigation of activists, greenwashing, ‘astro-turfing’, and other PR tactics. Check out the following books:

Update – May 2012

A forum was presented on 17 May by the Castan Centre on Human rights, protest and police surveillance, intelligence gathering and monitoring of public protest.

Activists Jan Beer and Chris Heislers shared their experiences of police and corporate surveillance and harrassment – highlighting the unethical connection between corporate interests and use of police powers. These stories showed how excessive surveillance, as well as litigation and heavy handed policing, are used to attempt to derail and dampen community protest.

Anthony Kelly from Flemington and Kensington Legal Centre, who has a longstanding involvement in nonviolent direct action and organising, outlined the emergence and history of the modern ‘template’ for police surveillance of public protest. He encouraged activists to be prepared for surveillance, to organise openly and democratically, and take steps to monitor and record surveillance.

Anna Brown from Human Rights Law Centre provided an overview of the legal and human rights aspects, including recent cases here and overseas which challenge the use of surveillance.

Key take home messages:

  • Be prepared for surveillance but don’t get paranoid!;
  • Organise openly and democratically;
  • Surveillance is an attempt to marginalise protesters – so build connections and raise your profile;
  • Take steps to monitor and record surveillance; and
  • Know your rights and challenge unlawful surveillance.

You can view some of the highlights from the discussion on Twitter at #CCProtest. A Lateline story covered some of the issues discussed at the forum. Like ‘The Secret Life of Police Profiling‘ on Facebook for updates.

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Many thanks to everyone who suggested resources for this post. More are welcome!  Please comment below or use the contact form if you have other suggestions. It would be excellent to start a conversation about activist experiences of surveillance and spying – but of course whatever we say will be of interest to those we discuss.

Photos of placards taken at the Occupy Melbourne rally at Martin Ferguson’s office, Preston, Victoria on 12/01/12.

4 Responses to “Spy vs Activist: Managing Security Risks”

  1. Anthony Kelly 18 January 2012 at 8:19 am Permalink

    Great article – For some reason the link to activist rights seems to be broken – http://www.activistrights.org.au/cb_pages/surveillance_of_activists.php gets there – it seems to be the same url – not sure why your link doesn’t go to the same page?

    • Holly Hammond 18 January 2012 at 8:32 am Permalink

      Thanks for picking this up Anthony – seems to be something going on with links from my page. If you get an error message for any of these links refresh that page and it should display correctly – the urls are correct but sometimes don’t load directly. I’ll look into it!

  2. Nicola Paris 18 January 2012 at 12:59 pm Permalink

    and this forum is particularly topical on Saturday…The War on the Internet http://on.fb.me/yjJyBw

  3. Anthony 4 May 2012 at 2:13 pm Permalink

    For future reference – the Surveillance of Activists section of ActivistRights.org.au is now updated

    http://www.activistrights.org.au/handbook/ch01s08.php and a section on dealing with surveillance and infiltration

    here http://www.activistrights.org.au/handbook/ch03s09.php


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