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Do you want to know a secret?

It is estimated that in the ten year period between 1974 and 1984 5,000 private individuals were identified by name in intelligence reports, created by undercover police officers, about political campaign meetings and other events (Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019: p. 55-57). These, and reports compiled during other periods of covert police surveillance, are now in the possession of the inquiry into undercover policing. In more than a third of the cases, the reports recorded "....activity, what they said, the meetings in which they were present, and so forth” (Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019,p. 57). Some of the individuals reported on will know, or will be in a position to strongly suspect, that they have been the subject of undercover surveillance; others - very likely the majority - will not. One can easily understand why many of these individuals would want to know that they were subject to surveillance, why they were targeted, and what of their personal and political lives was recorded. But one can also understand why many will not want to know. The desire to shield oneself from knowledge is no less human and understandable than is the desire to know.

On 31 January 2019, a public hearing took place to consider how the inquiry should deal with data relating to individuals who were the subject of various intelligence reports. Particular difficulties surround those “... not in contact with the inquiry…” (Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019: p.45). Aside from the fact that such individuals might, once informed of the report(s), furnish the inquiry with new evidence about specific covert deployments, all so-called “data subjects” have legal rights over the use of their personal data, which could be enforced against the inquiry - now engaged in the “processing” of that data. It has yet to be determined whether, and to what extent, the inquiry is constrained by data protection laws (e.g. Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019: p. 51-3 & p. 125-6), but it is doubtful that any applicable legal framework will relieve the inquiry of the burden of dealing with a small but significant section of the public now thrown into anxiety over whether they may be denied the knowledge they seek or forced to confront facts about which they would prefer to remain in ignorance. The probability that in satisfying the desire for knowledge of one individual the inquiry might cause information about another to be “...blazed over the media or published even on the informal media…(Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019: p. 77) without that individual’s consent is very real, because “...the paradigm example of a single individual having a report about matters that are personally or politically sensitive to that individual occurs very rarely...there are numerous persons reported upon and personal details and political opinions of numerous people are contained in the same document” (Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019: p. 71).

Speaking of the justice campaign which followed the death of Colin Roach in Stoke Newington police station in 1983, the inquiry chair stated that it was the first campaign “...upon which there was any significant Special Demonstration Squad reporting…[i]t was not, as such, infiltrated although its activities were reported upon and the individuals who formed part of it did feature in reports (Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019, p. 21-2). I was one of two researchers employed by the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Policing in Hackney, 1983-85 - one of the few inquiries to be established outside of the state apparatus. Aside from looking into the precise circumstances of Colin Roach’s death, the Inquiry Committee remit covered investigation into the recent history of policing in Hackney (1945-1984), with a particular focus on incidents of violent and unexplained deaths of black people while in Stoke Newington police station. Whilst my role, which consisted mainly of library research, was highly unlikely to have stimulated the interest of those undercover officers who reported on the justice campaign, I certainly did attend several of the campaign meetings and other related events. Knowledge of the existence of the inquiry into undercover policing and its terms of reference has not so far inspired me to pursue any possible personal reference that might conceivably be contained in intelligence sources. However, if, in the proper exercise of its judgement, the inquiry decides to allow an individual with whom it is in contact sight of an unredacted version of a Colin Roach justice campaign surveillance report in which that individual and numerous others (including me) are named, what guarantees do I have relating to my data privacy? The approach that the inquiry chair is minded to take in circumstances such as these, and probably the only viable option, is expressed as follows:

“ In the end I have to make a decision about whether not not I can trust members of the public, who will regard themselves mainly as victims of something which should not have happened, to abide by what will then be imposed on them as a legal obligation to keep things confidential. My inclination at the moment is to say yes, I can trust them to do that” (Inquiry Transcript, 31.1.2019: p. 115).

Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?

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