The days of organisations like the Economic League and the Consulting Association keeping lists of political activists and trade union militants are, thankfully, long gone. These organisations were products of the 20th Century, though the CA managed to continue into the present century until it was closed down by the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) after years of campaigning and investigations by union activists and others. But since those organisations’ demise, blacklisting has not only survived but is flourishing, thanks partly to the widening role of HR departments and recruitment agencies and their ongoing links with the intelligence arms of government, and partly to the impact of social media on our lives. Also, blacklisting in today’s brave new world is not just about preventing industrial action, but about profiling workers to ensure they are compliant, have the right corporate attitude and are most definitely not ‘radical’. Below are examples of social monitoring activities and snooping tools used by vetting agencies and HR, as well as examples of police snooping operations (and specialist police undercover units).
Technically, blacklisting is illegal, but there are a myriad of ways of getting round legal restrictions. The people who practice blacklisting today are the HR departments of big, medium-size and small businesses around the country, as well as the civil service, local government, universities, and national organisations such as the NHS, railway companies and so on. Vacancies have to be filled by the right people: not just by skills or qualifications or experience, but by other criteria.
A. HR vetting and social media
Routine checks made on applicants cover not just past criminal convictions and any time served in prison, but also checks with previous employers to see if the applicant has been dismissed, or has been subject to disciplinary action, or has received a caution, or has an unexplained lack of a reference, or has an unexplained gap in work history. Job applicants are required to provide all the necessary information, though many HR departments and recruitment agencies will also conduct positive vetting (a term that used to be associated solely with the recruitment processes of the intelligence services). Positive vetting in this context basically means making direct enquiries with previous employers or via organisation-wide data systems (e.g. NHS HR data; similarly with universities) to check if an applicant revealed accurately all the necessary background information.
This is just the bottom line. In addition, many HR departments now undertake informal checks. These may be as simple as ‘googling’ someone, to see if there is any adverse information. Checking a LinkedIn profile is another avenue. A prospective employer may also decide to check an applicant via other social media services, such as Facebook or Twitter. This is not as difficult as it sounds as there are several tools freely available to enable an examination of someone’s Tweets or Facebook postings (and without their permission). Around 30 such tools – police and security services and journalists use them routinely – can be found here.
The main information a prospective employer will seek is evidence of ‘troublemaking’ – e.g. organising or taking part in industrial action, being a known whistleblower, raising complaints about health and safety matters, membership of a ‘radical’ political organisation (e.g. anything from Greenpeace and Amnesty International through to an anarchist organisation) or taking part in a demonstration or protest, etc.
Again, this is just the bottom-line. Also sought is information about attitude – or, rather, whether the applicant has the ‘right attitude’ that fits in with company ethos. From employers’ point of view this is necessary to ensure the workforce is compliant to the culture of the company. All in all, this practice ensure that across industry – and society generally – conformity is encouraged, authority obeyed and dissent minimised.
And just as companies via their security and HR personnel invariably pass on useful intelligence to the police, so it is inevitable that in these ‘conversations’ police pass on intelligence to companies about who should be employed.
B. Police monitoring of social media
In May 2013 Umut Ertogal, the ‘head of open source intelligence with the UK Police National Domestic Extremism Unit’, revealed in a private report to the Australian police (then preparing for the Brisbane G20 Summit), that the unit used a software tool called SOCMINT to monitor social media sites to gauge public mood. It was apparently extensively used during the London 2012 Olympics and for ‘predicting hotspots during the 2010 student protests’ – including a call for a protest against a visit of Prime Minister David Cameron to King’s Cross railway station that resulted in the arrests of 10 people.
It was also revealed that at the time SOCMINT (which stands for ‘Social Media Intelligence’, a name given to this open source intelligence gathering technique) was being run by a staff of 17 people working around the clock, scanning Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other public forums used by UK citizens. Ertogral reportedly said that YouTube effectively acted as CCTV and Google Glasses were ‘another channel for us to explore and look at’.
C. Vetting departments and agencies
The main Government vetting department (covering non-Defence departments as well as all contractors to the Government) is Defence Business Services National Security Vetting. Any private or local government work that has a ‘national security’ aspect is covered by this agency.
There are many private agencies that offers vetting services. One such agency is SCJ; another is BPSS (it vets anyone working in the following industries: Communications, Emergency services, Energy, Finance, Food, Government and public services, Health, Transport and Water). Another is The Security Website, which states that it vets people whose “work would involve access to sensitive Government assets: crown servants; members of the security and intelligence agencies; members of the armed forces; the police; employees of certain other non-government organisations that are obliged to comply with the Government’s security procedures; employees of contractors providing goods and services to the Government”.
D. The revolving door
Last year a Select Committee investigation found that representatives from the undercover police unit known as the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) attended and gave presentations to meetings of the Consulting Association, the blacklisting organisation. In 2013 the head of the covert blacklisting organisation, which was financed and controlled by major construction companies, was prosecuted for holding illegal files on construction workers. In 2008, according to a Guardian article, Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Mills, then of NETCU, allegedy met with the Consultancy Association to facilitate exchange of information. Today, while NETCU is no more, several of its officers have moved on to ‘risk control’ – particularly for the pharmaceutical companies, such as Novartis and Glaxo-Smith-Kline.
Superintendent Stephen Pearl, who was the head of NETCU, is now a non-executive director of Agenda Resource Management, which carries out vetting of applicants for jobs in animal laboratories. Agenda Security Services (ASS) boast its staff includes “teams of ex-police, ex-military, desktop researchers and security analysts” ASS also states that it works with Government Institutions, global corporations and small to medium sized businesses. One of its main services is employee screening. ASS “combine high tech and secure systems with well trained and customer focused researchers and analysts…” Ironically this program is named as ISIS: Information Security Investigation System. Checks include identity, address, internet mining search (i.e. check individual via search engines), employment history, gaps in employment and credit references. ASS explains that it intelligence can be gathered on “threats to the organisation, animal rights, extremists, competitors and counterfeiters to name but a few.” ASS uses an interactive software system called Guardian, which it uses to to check over a billion web pages on behalf of clients.
Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, who was the senior police officer in charge of the UK police domestic extremism machinery between 2004 and 2010, is now head of global security at Laing O’Rourke – one of the construction companies that subscribed to the Consulting Association.
Rod Leeming, who was the head of Special Branch’s Animal Rights National Index (which kept tabs on animal rights activists) went on to found the security firm Global Open, which advises pharmaceutical companies (and which also hired the notorious undercover cop Mark Kennedy, who specialised in ‘domestic extremism‘ under the aegis of ACPO).
Francis was a police officer with the SDS (Special Demonstration Squad) and spent four years spying on trade unionists, but is now a whistleblower. His undercover work was typical of many, many other officers who infiltrate political organisations and spy on trade unionists.
E. The covert police units
The National Domestic Extremism Database is a database of individuals associated with protests. It is managed by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) within the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU) but managed by the Metropolitan Police Service – specifically its Counter Terrorism Command and with links to the National Special Branch Information System (NSBIS – codename Fairway).
There are three related databases, as follows: CO11 Protester Database is run by the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Unit (CO11) with much of the informtion provided by the Forward Intelligence Teams; the Commander’s Archive, which contains sensitive documentation not stored in Special Branch records; CrimInt contains information on criminals, suspects and protesters.