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Infiltration and what we can do about it

Infiltration and what we can do about it

Every few years, the issue of infiltration into anarchist and activist groups becomes a topic of conversation again. Most recently it has been the journalist Max Parry, targeting Palestine Action. Journalists are the least of the threats against us – the list includes informers, corporate spies and the police. Anyone campaigning for justice or change can find themselves reported on.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), due to restart in July, has given us a remarkable insight into the lengths to which police have gone to penetrate organisations. This includes the type of information they report back as well as their willingness to deceive and abuse left-wing activists and family justice campaigns. Freedom will also make an appearance, the target of spycop, “Roger Thorley”.

It is natural to feel unsettled by this. Surveillance is intrusive, and not knowing the truth is even worse. When things go wrong it can be difficult to know who to trust. In this context, suspicion and rumour can become powerful and divisive. Yet, we know we are right to be wary as the Inquiry proves the State is out to get us.

The reality, though, is that many undercovers were not discovered until the Inquiry. Of the few whom activists exposed, they only succeeded through a lot of hard work to turn suspicion into fact, or through mistakes. And even then, many were part of groups for years before they were revealed. The difficult truth we must face is that most of us will never know if the person we had a “weird vibe” from in a meeting was an undercover cop, journalist or similar. Most suspicions will never be proven. While we know we are under surveillance, only a handful will learn of its extent.

How not to be paranoid …

It is easy to be caught up in paranoia. Such feelings and a lack of information can leave us with a sense of uncertainty and a loss of what to actually do. Our biggest danger, though, is to let that paranoia overwhelm us and become the policeman in our heads. Paranoia is not security. When rumour and suspicion divide our groups, then we do the State’s work for it. Or it frightens us from taking any action, which is also a win from the State’s perspective.

As the Undercover Research Group points out, in many cases, you’ll probably never get to the bottom of a suspicion. If we focus all our energies on something that might or might not exist, many people will end up as collateral damage. Handling suspicions with poor focus can end up splitting groups.

This probably sounds very disempowering, but despite this, for decades, groups have been successfully pulling off actions under the nose of the watchers by taking sensible steps to keep information and identities secure, and protecting their campaigns from such disruption.

So, the question we face is not “who are the spycops, and how do we find them?” It’s both simpler and harder, as the police, journalists, and corporate spies all approach our movements with the same aim: to disrupt our campaigns and stop them from winning. The real question is how do we keep ourselves and each other safe while taking effective action? How do we empower ourselves in the face of such threats?

Activist security

Security is the opposite of paranoia. It is the process of considering how we manage sensitive information and protect our privacy. It means thinking through how you will handle risks at every stage of organising together. And it can make the difference between the success or failure of a particular action. Nothing is foolproof — anyone who tells you that is lying — but you can minimise the risks.

The meme “dance like no one is watching … text and email like it might be read out in court one day” has a basic truth at its heart. Let’s address how the State can criminalise those who take part in protests.

The State is often about disruption, but we can disrupt their tactics in turn. If we expect to be targeted, we can take simple measures to protect ourselves and reduce the effectiveness of their techniques. Remember that the State favours technology and will always have the upper hand there – low tech, or none at all, is your friend.

One of the most important tools any State has is listening in, whether it’s gossip at a meet-up or what we say online. But that is of little value if you are not saying anything that risks your action or demo. Keep things on a need-to-know basis. The less they can find out, the safer your action is. You can do your bit by accepting that you need to know only the minimum necessary and encouraging such a culture.

You can also help foster a security culture within your groups by helping people build trust in each other. This includes, if necessary, being open to your group doing background checks on each other so everyone knows exactly who they are taking risks with. Such questions are never pleasant, and we don’t like answering them, but if the consequences of being caught are a busted action or jail, then that is the price we must pay. It is not about our feelings or egos but about being successful in our actions in the face of a powerful opposition.

Serious Disruption Prevention Orders

Netpol has actively challenged police surveillance for more than a decade, but it feels like this work has never been more important. This is especially so with the introduction of Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs). These are effectively ban orders targeting campaigners, which can restrict where you go, prevent you from attending protests, and stop you from seeing friends and comrades.

Although the Home Office and police claim the number of people they want to target with SDPOs is small, the surveillance operation required to make such orders work in practice is huge. Police will need to track an individual’s movements and contacts and gauge their influence in order to make the case that they should receive a SDPO. In practice, this means surveilling everyone in their group or sphere of influence. It seems likely the police are already seeking to gather this intelligence in preparation for future applications for SDPOs against individuals.

This surveillance might sound terrifying, but as the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows, it is also not new. Indeed, the material published by the UCPI shows what information they consider valuable and how long they’ve been gathering it. It is important to remember that it has not stopped movements from emerging and gaining victories. Rather, the expansion of police powers shows how worried the government is about so-called “disruptive” protests.

Still, we should not hand the police easy victories. We need to treat security as what it is – a core part of building a culture of care within our groups and a practical strategy to keep our comrades and ourselves out of jail and on the streets. This has never been truer than during the recent Palestine protests when rampant police racism has reclassified many Arab, Muslim and other racialised groups as “extremists”, paving the way for expanded surveillance and criminalisation.

Netpol is collaborating with several groups to produce new activist security guides. These will detail practical things you and your group can start doing straight away to help people’s privacy and safety. They will be released over the next few months, so to make sure you are notified about them, sign up to our mailing list at

It is as true today as ever that we are strongest when we are in full solidarity, and security is an act of solidarity.


In this article, we’ve argued against allowing paranoia to do the State’s work. But as activists in previous generations have shown, there will be times when suspicion is too strong to ignore, and it’s time to dig.
Once a group of you is able to determine a suspicion is well grounded, you should not ignore it. There are actions you can take to confirm if they are genuine, along with tools and techniques which can help turn those suspicions into real evidence. Or better still, show they were misplaced and that you have a genuine comrade at your side after all. For more information, read the Undercover Research Group’s pamphlet Was My Friend A Spycop? for techniques on what to do and how to protect your group.

Upcoming hearings

Finally, for those interested in seeing how the police go about such surveillance, watch out for the next round of hearings in the Undercover Policing Inquiry. Covering 1982-92, it will explore how police infiltrated animal liberation, Poll Tax, family justice and defence campaigns. These include those relating to the Broadwater Farm riots and groups confronting the fascists dealing out racial violence on Brick Lane and elsewhere. It will explore the systematic use of sexual relationships and stolen children’s identities to abuse campaigners in the name of public order policing.

Hearings will take place this summer in central London. For more information, check out Police Spies Out Of Lives and the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance.

~ Netpol

This article first appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Freedom Journal.

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