Activist Rights

Dealing with Surveillance

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Individuals and groups, collectives & organisations involved in controversial issues – particularly those who encourage, support or assist people to engage in civil disobedience or direct action – should be aware of the possibility of surveillance by police or other government agencies.

While its good to be aware of the risk of surveillance, don’t let paranoia immobilise you.

Overreaction to potential evidence of surveillance can be just as disruptive to an organisation as an actual infiltrator or disruption campaign. You are not paranoid – assume that they are watching you. Just stay calm about it.

On this page:

  • Evidence of surveillance
  • Reporting surveillance
  • Suspicion of surveillance
  • Preparing for demonstrations
  • During events
  • Suspected infiltrator

Also see the Surveillance of activists section under Legal context.

Surveillance is: monitoring the activities of people or groups without those people necessarily knowing that they are being monitored.

Surveillance has always been a part of human history, but modern electronic and computer technology have given surveillance a wider meaning.

Surveillance does not have to be done by individual government employees, it can be done using computers, CCTV, and other machines like drones.

People also don’t need to be “watched” to be surveilled. We leave digital traces or footprints when we travel, when we shop, when we email, or when we do a google search.

In Australia many individuals and organisations have been spied on, phone-tapped, and had their personal lives disrupted and their organisations infiltrated.

The aims of such surveillance is to undermine or draw people away from their political or activist work.

Organisers should understand the history of political surveillance and infiltration in Australia, and know how to recognise the signs that their group may be the target of an investigation.

Evidence of surveillance

If you or someone in your group is concerned or thinks there is evidence of surveillance, consider holding a meeting to discuss spying and harassment.

Thins to consider include:

Find out if any of your members have:

  • experienced any harassment,
  • or noticed any surveillance activities that appear to be directed at the organisation’s activities.

Carefully record all the details of these and see if any patterns develop.

Review any past suspicious activities or difficulties in your group.

Has one person, or several people, been involved in many of these events? (read “suspected infiltrator” below – wrongful accusations can be very damaging and hurtful).

List other possible “evidence” of surveillance or infiltration.

You may want to develop an internal policy on how the group should respond to any possible surveillance or suspicious actions.

Decide who should be the contact person(s), what information should be recorded, what process to follow during any event or demonstration if disruption tactics are used.

The contact person(s) should:

  • Speak to someone familiar with surveillance history and law, such as Liberty Victoria, or a community legal centre. Brief them about your evidence and suspicions. They will be able to make suggestions about actions to take, as well as organising and legal contacts.
  • Maintain a file of all suspected or confirmed experiences of surveillance and disruption.
    • Include: date, place, time, who was present, a complete description of everything that happened, and any comments explaining the context of the event or showing what impact the event had on the individual or organisation.
    • If this is put in a Statutory Declaration and signed, it can be used as evidence in court.
  • Consider using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act to request any files on you or your group from government agencies and departments. You can file similar requests with state police.

Consider holding a public meeting to discuss spying in your broader activist community and around the country.

You could also schedule a an event or film to discuss political surveillance.

Make sure to protect important documents or computers by keeping good passwords as well as storing paperwork in a separate, secret location.

Use fireproof, locked cabinets if possible.

Implement a sign-in policy for your office and/or meetings.

This is helpful for your organising, developing a mailing list, and can provide evidence that an infiltrator or informer was at your meeting.

Reporting surveillance

If you suspect you are being surveilled there are some mechanisms you can take to report it.

This section has been adapted to the Australian context from an article by Linda Lotz of the American Friends Service Committee.

Report telephone difficulties to your telephone company. Ask for a check on the lines to assure that the equipment is working properly.

Ask them to do a sweep/check to see if any wiretap equipment is attached. (Sometimes repair staff can be very helpful in this way.) 

If you can afford it, request a sweep of your phone and office or home from a private security firm. Remember this will only be good at the time that the sweep is done.

If there is suspicious activity happening with your mail, file a formal complaint with Australia Post, specifying the problems you have been experiencing, specific dates, and other details.

If mail has failed to arrive, ask the Post Office to trace the envelope or package.

If you have been the subject of surveillance or infiltration, you can ask the police do do a formal inquiry.

Describe any offending actions by police officers and ask a variety of questions.

If an activity was photographed, ask what will be done with the pictures.

Set a time when you expect a reply from the police commissioner. If appropriate, inform your local member of parliament and the media of your request.

If you are not pleased with the results of the police reply, file a complaint with the Police Ombudsman. See also Complaints against the police section.

Demand a full investigation. Work with investigators to insure that all witnesses are contacted. Monitor the investigation and respond publicly to the conclusions.

You should consider getting legal advice about the potential to bring civil proceedings.

Before embarking on a lawsuit, remember that most suits take many years to complete and require a tremendous amount of organisation and legal workers’ energy and money.

You may want to notify the media that you are being surveilled.

Keep interested reporters updated on any new developments. They may be aware of other police abuses, or be able to obtain further evidence of police practices.

Media coverage of spying activities is very important, because publicity conscious politicians and police commissioners will be held accountable for questionable practices.

Suspicion of Surveillance

The following information is a brief outline of what to look for – and what to do if you think your group is the subject of an investigation. This is meant to suggest possible actions, and is not intended to provide legal advice.

Visits by police or federal agents to politically involved individuals, landlords, employers, family members, or business associates.

These visits may be to ask for information, to encourage or create the possibility of eviction or termination of employment, or to create pressure for the person to stop his or her political involvement.

Uniformed or plainclothes officers taking photos of people entering your office or participating in your activities.

Just before and during demonstrations and other public events, check the area including windows and rooftops for photographers. (Credentialing press can help to separate the media from the spies.)

Be alert to people who seem out of place.

If they come to your office or attend your events, greet them as potential members.

Try to determine if they are really interested in your issues – or just your members.

Also be alert to people writing down licence plate numbers of cars and other vehicles in the vicinity of your meetings and rallies.

Electronic surveillance equipment is now so sophisticated that you should not be able to tell if your telephone conversations are being monitored. Clicks, whirrs, and other noises probably indicate a problem in the telephone line or other equipment.

For example, the United States National Security Agency has the technology to monitor microwave communications traffic, and to isolate all calls to or from a particular line, or to listen for key words that activate a tape recording device. Laser beams and “spike” microphones can detect sound waves hitting walls and windowpanes, and then transmit those waves for recording. In these cases, there is little chance that the subject would be able to find out about the surveillance.

Among the possible signs you may find are:

  • Hearing a tape recording of a conversation you, or someone else in your home or office, have recently held
  • Hearing people talking about your activities when you try to use the telephone
  • Losing service several days before major events

Preparing for demonstrations

Talk about the potential for surveillance when planning an event or demonstration.

Brief your legal workers on appropriate state and federal statutes on police and federal officials spying.

Discuss whether photographing with still or video cameras is anticipated and decide if you want to challenge it.

If you anticipate surveillance, brief reporters who are expected to cover the event, and provide them with materials about surveillance by your state police in the past, and/or against other activists throughout the country.

Tell the participants when surveillance is anticipated and discuss what the group’s response will be.

Also, decide how to handle provocateurs, police violence, etc. and incorporate this into any affinity group, marshal or other training.

During events

Carefully monitor the crowd, looking for surveillance or possible disruption tactics. Photograph any suspicious or questionable activities.

Approach police officer(s) seen engaging in questionable activities. Consider having a legal worker and/or media person monitor their actions.

Also see Information Coordinator – Support team roles.

Suspected Infiltrator

Suspecting or becoming aware of an infiltrator your group is a serious issue.

If there is an infiltrator, this can be very distressing for people who have formed relationships and trust with that person.

Wrongfully accusing someone of being an infiltrator is very hurtful and can alienate someone from an entire community.

Consider the following things if you suspect there is an infiltrator in your group: 

 

If you suspect someone is an infiltrator try to obtain information about their background:

  • Where they attended high school/university;
  • Place of employment, and other pieces of history. Attempt to verify this information. Check public records which include employment; this can include voter registration, mortgages or other debt filings, etc;
  • Check listings of Australian police academy graduates, if available.

Accusing someone of being an infiltrator is a serious thing. Don’t do this lightly.

Making public accusations about someone may constitute defamation if the accusations are unfounded.

Making wrong accusations may also have the effect of isolating someone who may have been highly committed to your campaign.

Get your facts straight and consider these issues carefully.

If you have good evidence that someone is an infiltrator, consider these things when deciding how to confront them:

  • Confront them in a protected setting, such as a small meeting with several other key members of your group (and an attorney if available)
  • Present the evidence and ask for the person’s response
  • Plan how to inform your members about the infiltration, gathering information about what the person did while a part of the group and determining any additional impact they may have had
  • Organise any supports people may need once aware of the infiltration
  • You may consider contacting the press with evidence of the infiltration

If you can only gather circumstantial evidence, or weak evidence, it might not be a good idea to accuse the person of being an infiltrator.

It might be that they are not an infiltrator, but are still being disruptive to the group.

You can still confront someone who is being disruptive.

Consider these things:

  • Hold a strategy session with key leadership as to how to handle the disruptive person;
  • Confront the person, and lay out how the person is disrupting the group;
  • Be curious and open as to what might be going on for that person that is causing them to be disruptive;
  • Set guidelines for further involvement and carefully monitor the person’s activities;
  • If the problems continue, consider asking the person to leave the organisation.

While you don’t need to ambush someone as an entire group, particularly if you don’t have good evidence, confronting someone one-on-one is not a good idea.

Real or suspected infiltration is serious. It is important to have more than one account of what happens when someone is confronted.

Infiltration is based in secrecy and deception. It is important to confront it openly and transparently.

If you do have good evidence that someone is an infiltrator, confront the person with the information in front of witnesses and carefully watch reactions.

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