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Security culture in activism

Defending against infiltration and surveilance
Last update: Dec 18, 2022
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This article is about a set of practices used by activists to avoid or mitigate the effects of police surveillance and harassment and state control. We warn about the risks of security culture, and discuss the importance of taking an open approach. We also wrote a guide specifically about digital security.

A security culture is a set of customs and measures shared by a community whose members may engage in sensitive or illegal activities. Security culture practices minimize the risks of members getting arrested or their actions being foiled.

In other words, while we are trying to stop bad things from happening, our powerful opponents (usually governments or corporations) are working hard to stop us. This guide is about the security measures activists can take to protect ourselves and make our work more effective.

Threats

This guide mostly focuses on the actions of law enforcement, such as intelligence officers and police, as it usually has the greatest authority to target activists.

There are many ways that law enforcement use its powers to stop activists. They excessively investigate, charge and convict activists on trumped-up charges, arrest organizers prior to large protests, and conduct mass arrests of law- abiding citizens during protests. All these strategies were deployed during the G8/G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, for example.

Governments also unfairly apply tax laws to pressure groups to release information, and use grand juries (in the States) to intimidate and silence people and their allies. (Corporations also use civil courts to harass activists, often suing individuals for compensation for lost profits.)

Battling with the courts and spending time in jail is an exceptionally effective way to compound stress and burn- out, and redirect a group’s efforts to raising legal fees and tackling the legal system. This strategy is commonly used by law enforcement and should be of greatest concern to activist groups.

2. Law enforcement investigates and infiltrates groups

In the pursuit of investigating potential and alleged crimes, police engage in excessive and sometimes illegal physical and electronic surveillance, such as: searching cars and homes, following (“tailing”) people, monitoring email and phone communications, and identifying people simply for being activists or attending activist events.

Like The Wire TV series, law enforcement uses informants who are civilians who gather information for the police, usually for money. Anyone can be an informant: your landlord, disgruntled activists, or random students. Police have a tendency to target people with exploitable weaknesses, such as people facing prison time, or suffering drug/gambling/money problems. It’s common for police to offer arrested activists a sweeter plea bargain in return for incriminating information on other activists. Unfor- tunately, the pursuit of suspected spies can scare off new activists and set off waves of paranoia.

On rarer occasions, law enforcement gathers information through undercover agents who pose as activists. For an extreme example, take police officer, Mark Kennedy, who went deep undercover as a British environmental direct action activist, going to protests around Europe for over seven years.

3. Law enforcement disrupts activities

Infiltrators can disrupt or stymie meetings, and spread malicious gossip and rumors (like accusing others of being undercover agents). This is not law enforcement’s primary tactic. These operations are usually organized on a fed- eral level and are longer term. For a recent example, read activist Lisa Fithian’s report on the disruptive behavior of a long-time informant named Brandon Darby working on the New Orleans reconstruction effort.

Law enforcement also encourages activists to engage in property destruction and violence; these tactics can be used to justify a strong police crackdown and the labeling of ac- tivists as “terrorists.” Check out this footage of a 2008 protest in Montebello, Quebec, which shows masked-men (one of whom is holding a rock) trying to instigate violence near a police line. After public outcry, the Quebec police admitted the “violent activists” were undercover police. However, this is not the most common strategy for law enforcement to deploy.

4. Opponents and law enforcement engage in targeted excessive force and violence

On occasion, law enforcement harms activists at protests or in jail. In a few cases, law enforcement has also been implicated in assassinations of usually high profile radi- cal activists, such as black civil rights leaders in the 60s and 70s. These strategies are not as common as other law enforcement measures.

Cure worse than disease?

Measure you take to avoid being surveilled and infiltrated might do more harm than good to your movement. Often, these measures mean you are making your movement more secretive and less accessible for new people to join. And this might actually be exactly what your oppressors want you to do: hiding in a shell instead of challenging the status quo out in the open.

To give an example:

Imagine you find out that the government is forcing Telegram to share the contents of users' group chat messages. You could decide to switch to Signal, which is better for security because it uses end-to-end encryption.

But what if no-one in your country uses Signal? You might be able to convice the most dedicated members to switch, but you will probably find that fewer new people join your Signal group chat and become involved in your movement.

Benefits of open approach

An open approach in activism is often more effective.

There is power in numbers: even if you are planning an illegal action completely in the open, police might not be able to stop all of you. Especially when you organise decentralised on a large scale, in many cases, it is impossible to law enforcent to track down and stop every single small action.

Yes, law enforcement will know who you are. Yes, they will know what you are planning on organising. But so will everyone else. If you want to achieve big change, eventually, you want everyone to know about you and your message, and the only way to do so is by taking action out in the open.

This is scary, and in many cases dangerous. If you are using civil disobedience as a tactic, likeley, people within your movement will be prosecuted. Depending on where you live, the consequences may be worse. The question is: is it worth it? There is no one-fits-all answer for all movements.

Important: The word ‘decentralised’ is key! If you are a very large movement, but you have pyramid-like (top-down) organisation structure, law enforcement can very easily bring down your whole movement by arresting your leaders.

Threat model

Assess your risk

This guide first outlines some general guidelines, and then offers some specific advice you can take to minimize these threats.

There’s no easy answer to the tough question, How securi- ty conscious should I be? The consequences of surveillance and harassment have the potential to be severe; however, being overly cautious and constantly preparing for the worst can be debilitating.

Ask yourself, are you at high, low, or medium interest to law enforcement? The table below is a useful guide to help you assess where your group is at.

If your group has a combination of higher interest factors then you are more likely to be subject to surveillance and harassment.

If you’re not sure you’re experiencing surveillance and harassment, and you want an indication of what to expect or prepare for, then look at how law enforcement is dealing with groups similar to yours. (Having said that, past police practice doesn’t always predict how police will act in the future.)

It is also useful to gather public information to help you assess how much energy law enforcement could be direct- ing towards your group or issue. Law enforcement often makes public announcements about the size and scope of their security budgets and priorities. In the early 2000s, the FBI was very vocal about its decision to classify extremist animal rights and environmental activists as “terrorists” and quash their activities. Security budgets are usually boosted just prior to high profile national or international meetings, like a G8/G20 Summit or a Republican National Convention, for instance.

Also remember that individuals in your group are subject to different levels of risk. People of color and marginalized people (such as non-citizens) are often of greater interest to law enforcement; some folks are often more vulnerable to the consequences of arrest. (For example, mothers who are arrested and charged with serious crimes are often threat- ened with losing custody of their children if they don’t become informants for the police.)

Think through how your group will protect and support your most vulnerable members. For instance, you might choose to avoid putting high-risk people in arrestable posi- tions at protests. Or you might assign more experienced lawyers to represent more vulnerable people in court. There are no one-size-fits all solutions to this dilemma.

Local contexts matter

To be able to decide whether it is worth accepting the risks of an open approach, local context matters. There may be very good reasons to keep your movement secretive.

Here are two examples where it might be better to build small resistance communities with only people you fully trust:

  • If your government straight away imprisons anyone who speaks up.
  • If it is a common police practice to infiltrate movements not just for the purpose of collecting intelligence, but also to destabilise your movement. For example, they do this by starting violence during a peaceful protest, to make you look bad or create an excuse to arrest you.

Weigh the “pros” and “cons”

Consider whether each security measure is worth imple- menting, and, if so, make an effort to mitigate the “cons.” It is not beneficial to implement security measures to the point where you are spending more energy being “secure” than you are in pursuing your activist goals.

Many security measures are straightforward. It’s easy to protect your computer with a complicated passphrase, for instance. Other precautions have negative consequences, taxing a group’s time, resources, overall health, and the recruitment of new members.

Some technical fixes (such as encrypting all emails) usually require some expertise in information technology, training and retraining of members, and monitoring, because people forget, get lax, etc. It might be worth adopting these measures if your small group relies heavily on online com- munication and is conducting a hard-to-execute action that requires surprise (hanging banners off large buildings, for instance). However, some of these solutions don’t scale up well. For instance, it is more difficult to implement email encryption if you’re working with hundreds of people.

Counter infiltration

I think there’s an informant in my group. What do I do? It’s a dangerous game to investigate and oust someone as an infiltrator or informant.

First, investigating people is time-consuming.

Second, if you accuse the wrong person, you might lose a valuable activist, and you’ll probably ramp up levels of mistrust and paranoia.

Third, it’s hard to guess the “undercover.” Sure, theories abound.... Your mind might start wondering when you meet people who have access to money, but no obvious em- ployment. Some of us might be curious about people who share no physical evidence (such as parents or high school friends) about life prior to or outside activism.

But these theories are also true for many bona-fide activ- ists. We are not the Mafia. We weren’t born into activism, we choose it. Many of us come from elsewhere. Some of us don’t talk to our families; some of us have access to money. Law enforcement has proven on many occasions that they can effectively infiltrate our networks and gain our trust with people who both match our theories and disprove them.

Fourth, even if an undercover is ousted, you can never guarantee that you are free from infiltration.

Investigating and outing an undercover agent or an infiltra- tor might be worth the energy. If you do decide to confront someone you believe to be an undercover, give them a fair chance to defend themselves and provide evidence to the otherwise.

For many high or medium risk groups, it’s often best to operate under the assumption that you are under some surveillance.

There are, in fact, many proactive/preventative security measures you can take that can actually improve the effec- tiveness and well-being of your group, instead of jeopar- dizing it. We’ll turn to them now.

Manage Emotions

Surveillance and harassment generate fear, mistrust, burn- out and paranoia. Paranoia is defined as being so suspi- cious of other people that you are incapable of doing what you need to do. A new member will likely feel unwelcome if they feel they have to prove to everyone’s satisfaction that they are not a cop. It is also hard for group members to make sensible decisions if people feel overwhelmed and scared.

Try to keep calm, realistic, and level-headed. There are a lot of resources available on how to stay grounded and calm – from breathing slowly, to taking time to relax and exercise (see our wellbeing chapter).

Be nice and supportive

And to continue on this theme of support....

People become informants for many reasons; perhaps they’re in a vulnerable position as they are facing prison time, or desperately need money. Common sense tells us that people are less likely to inform on those who treat them with respect, are friends, or strong allies.

Writing letters, organizing fundraisers for legal fees, and visiting activists in jail all help vulnerable people feel appreciated and connected. This makes them less likely
to share information about their friends and their move- ment for a shorter prison sentence. There are many good examples of groups that provide great support for activists experiencing significant threats, such as this one for Briana Waters, who has been battling the legal system for years due to her alleged involvement in environmental activism.

This is stating the obvious (although it isn’t always done), but it is also useful to be nice and supportive to people in your group, irrespective of whether they are vulnerable or not. One of the most effective ways to counter surveil- lance and harassment is to have people remain committed to activism for years (hopefully a lifetime) and to encour- age others to do the same. Experience often yields trusting relationships, patience, and perspective. There are many ways to foster commitment, of course, but one useful strategy is to build a group (and activist community) that people enjoy being a part of.

If your group is worried about surveillance, embodies many of the factors that make you of interest to law enforcement, or you are actively experiencing repression, talk openly about people’s fears and concerns. Talk about realistic and worst-case scenarios. Talking about fears and realizing that other people share your concerns can make these issues less intimidating.

People are often comforted by hearing personal accounts from activists who have experienced and overcome harassment of some kind. Proactively setting up support systems to withstand police interference, such as recruiting law-yers before a mass civil disobedience, can also increase a group’s emotional and mental capacity to deal with harassment.

Stop bad behaviour

Another positive approach to the problem of infiltration
is to focus on eliminating bad behavior. Regardless of whether someone is an informant or undercover, if there is a group member continuously disrupting your ability to campaign and function – behaving in a sexist way, lying, constantly gossiping about other group members, failing to do their tasks, and/or rarely following decision-making protocol – it is okay to ask them to stop, and, if they don’t, ask them to leave.

This is a great example of a security culture practice that makes you more effective rather than less.

Consider recruitment

Many groups have an open-door policy, where most people can easily join, provided they subscribe to the group’s mission or commit to work. This is great for recruitment and building your group’s power. And building your group’s power and securing additional support for your issue, is, in the long-term, a very effective way to limit surveillance and harassment.

Other groups set conditions and limitations on who can join. Some people only work with those they have known for many years, others will only work with people who have been vouched-for by a trusted member, or investigat- ed in some way. Other groups will integrate new members in stages. For instance, a direct action activist group in Ontario had a policy of investigating people before inviting them to join their core group. They visited the new activ- ist’s house and place of work in order to verify their story, they met the activist’s son and girlfriend, and they invited him to participate in public and legal events before allow- ing him to participate in more controversial actions and civil disobedience.

Strategies such as these generally make it harder for law enforcement to infiltrate. On the flip side, these strategies can make groups exclusionary, can lead to a false sense of security, and often lead to groups recruiting people like them, doesn’t lend itself to the goal of building mass public support. If you only need a few people to accomplish your goal then a closed-door policy might be for you, but most groups depend on a constant influx of people and abide by a more open-door policy.

Whatever your policy is, make sure you follow it consis- tently for everyone who wants to join.

Watch your language

It’s best not to say anything you wouldn’t want heard used against you in an open court room. That means not talk- ing, bragging, joking or boasting about illegal or sensitive things you (and especially others) have done or might do. Sometimes those statements do end up in court, and the onus will be on you to prove that your comment about hurting cops was just to get a laugh.

Law enforcement has been known to exacerbate divisions between people and groups, by, for instance, spreading unsubstantiated rumors. Don’t make their job easier by gossiping or venting. If you have an issue with someone, talk to that person directly. And don’t discuss sensitive information, such as the location and time of your civil disobedience, over the phone.

“Need-to-know”

Some groups implement a policy of ‘need-to-know’, which means people only have access to things they need to do their job. This policy is often employed temporarily, prior to actions that require the element of surprise to be success- ful, such as a road blockade involving a small number of people. (If you have a lot of people, it’s much harder for the police to stop you, even if they do know about the ac- tion beforehand.)

Implement this policy in a consistent manner, as resent- ment tends to build if people see it being applied to some people and not others. That means that even partners and best friends don’t get to know the details. Need-to-know also works best when people trust each other and have worked together for long periods.

“Need-to-know” policies can also be applied to the man- agement of data and information. This point is expanded on below.

Consider decision-making and democracy

Repression tends to lead to groups becoming more hier- archical and selective as they want to insulate themselves from disruptive members. Groups might choose to make key decisions in secret with a select few experienced trusted members.

A democratic group with a fair and transparent decision- making process is good for security culture. It is easier to significantly disrupt a group where a few people make decisions (you just have to go for the leader) than it is for a group that shares power and builds leadership.

It is also true that a consensus decision making process can make it easier for one or two dissenting members to hijack the process, by blocking proposals, for instance. This problem can be addressed in ways other than resorting to secrecy or hierarchy. Strong and experienced facilitation can help.

Groups might also choose to transparently modify the decision-making process in some way, perhaps to consen- sus minus one (which means a proposal is approved even if one person objects) or an 80% voting majority. These measures might be necessary before mass actions where there is a big influx of new people.

How to contribute

You have stumbled upon quite an empty page. Contribute by working on the following:

  • Discuss the risks of closing off your movement from the outside world (while the inclination to become more secretive to defend yourself against infiltration and surveilance is understandable, you should question whether this is not extactly doing what our oppressors want: hiding in a shell instead of challanging the status quo out in the open).
  • Discuss the open & transparent approach we take at Activist Handbook
  • Discuss local contexts (e.g. strong history of security culture in the US)
  • Discuss steps to take against infiltration & surveilance, take this publication as a starting point (published under Creative Commons licence). The section on protecting data should be added to another page of our website (also, it should be updated, not to included outdated software).

External resources

Attribution

This article is an adaptation of the Security Culture for Activists by Jessica Bell and Dan Spalding [Archived version]

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