Confessions of an Undercover Informant

Shopland 4

An interesting article appears on the Guardian websitetoday  featuring a video in which Gary Shopland, an ex-BNP member, tells the story of his alleged service as an undercover police informant.

The article is interesting for a number of reasons; firstly because Shopland’s membership of the BNP apparently ended in 2003 when he says he chose to stop working as an informant; because Shopland reveals nothing of any significance about the BNP; and because if anything his story reflects badly upon both him and his police handlers, rather than the BNP.

The video begins with footage of the Oldham riots of 2001, as if to infer that Shopland’s recruitment as a police informer was in some way related to these events and a desire on the part of the police to prevent further violence. In fact the rioting in Oldham was perpetrated by Asian gangs and was nothing to do with the BNP, and as the video later inadvertently showed, Shopland apparently joined the BNP in 1997, four years before the Oldham riots took place.

If Shopland’s account is to be believed, and there is good reason to suspect that he should not be, he was approached by police while he was training for a marathon in Snowdonia. Shopland had apparently made a reputation for himself as an “ultra-distance runner” and according to the video commentary, “The police appeared to see Shopland as an ideal BNP recruit … they said he looked the part”, and this suggestion immediately appears implausible – that special branch police officers would have been lurking around a marathon training event looking for potential undercover informants, as if talent as an ultra-distance runner somehow demonstrates an aptitude for undercover police work – or that ultra-distance running would somehow identify someone in the eyes of the police as a potentially “ideal BNP recruit”.

When initially approached by the police, Shopland recounts, “They said would you be interested in working for us? And I said, well yes.

“I’d be sent in to monitor a racist organisation called the British National Party. I wasn’t aware of the British National Party – I’d never heard of them.

“It all takes a massive adjustment from being a person that’s just not a racist, that’s never been a racist, to put in the position where you’re surrounded by racists.”

Shopland apparently wrote “regular reports” for his police handlers and with the massive adjustment required of Shopland, one would imagine that he would be highly regarded and richly rewarded by the state for his efforts, but no!

In return for his assistance, the police simply gave him furtive payments of cash.

“They gave me payment for it, in the backs of cars, in my house, in pubs”, Shopland tells us.

“I gave them the envelope with the intelligence in, they gave me the envelope with the cash in. I used to sign.

“On one occasion I had £100 and after that it was like a standard joke as to see who could, like, give it me then snatch it back. You know, give it me and snatch it back almost became a bit of a sick joke”.

In return for his assistance and the great inconvenience he suffered in fulfilling his duties, Shopland would have us believe that he was content to receive small cash payments delivered in furtive circumstances and in a manner that was clearly humiliating to him – giving the money and then snatching it back as some kind of “sick joke” at his expense.

Clearly Shopland did not have his handler’s respect. According to him, he was asked to work for them, but was not offered a proper contract of employment. He was paid in cash and one would assume without income tax or national insurance contributions having been deducted, under circumstances that were in all probability therefore, improper and of dubious legality.

All of this would tend to suggest that in the eyes of the police, far from being at the outset, a fine and respectable, upstanding member of the community, Shopland was seen as a ‘low-life’, a ‘snout’, that they were bribing with illicit inducements in order to elicit intelligence. It would be strange indeed for the police to approach a member of the public with an irreproachable reputation and expect them to respond positively to a sordid proposition involving such apparent impropriety, in return for what was little more than petty cash.

If Shopland had been a man of good character prior to being approached by the police, he must have been an idiot to undergo the great inconvenience that he describes, joining a political organisation that he had never heard of and working undercover despite being routinely humiliated by the police in return for such small, apparently illicit, cash payments, and one is therefore left wondering if the police had some other way of exercising leverage over Shopland?

Let us contrast the routine humiliation that Shopland describes at the hands of the police with his treatment by Nick Griffin:

The video tells us that Shopland became Nick Griffin’s body guard during the 2001 general election and Shopland recalls, “I could get close to Griffin and gained his confidence – ‘cause at the end of the day that’s what my job was – to get as close to him as possible, and the closer to him I got, the better graded and better quality the intelligence I could get.

“He treated members of the BNP okay. He treated me okay, because I was keen and I showed I was keen.

“I did everything I was asked within the BNP to such an extent I invited him [Griffin] up to one of my charity runs, and he came and he supported me”.

It would appear therefore that Shopland was treated with far greater respect and was shown more gratitude by Nick Griffin than the police. Furthermore, despite all of Shopland’s undercover work, it would appear that he did not find any evidence of any illegal activity by Nick Griffin, or if he did the police never acted upon it, and so his six years of undercover work and the apparent discomfort he felt mixing with ‘racists’ and the routine humiliation he endured at the hands of the police would all appear to have been for nothing.

When Shotland finally ended his liaison with the police and with the BNP in 2003, he recalls, “I felt betrayed and dumped by the state, really. There was no support there for me mentally, so there was no one for me to turn to.

“I just want to be able to clear my name, move on in my life and tell people that what I went through was to fight racism and try to make my country a better place to live in.”

If Shopland is to be believed, and let us be charitable and accept his word, then he was an incredibly naïve person and an idiot to have become involved with the police and allow himself to be manipulated by them under the circumstances that he describes.

While he thought he was doing a “job” and providing a service to the state, it is evident that the state did not view their relationship with him in that way. He was apparently given no contract of employment and when his time was up, he appears to have been unceremoniously dumped with no concern shown for his welfare.

It is well known that Special Branch officers, usually posing as ‘Community Liaison Officers’ or some such, routinely approach vulnerable members of nationalist organisations and employ various methods in an effort to induce them to become informants. All nationalist activists should be aware that they will never be fairly treated by the police or respected by them for any informing they may do.

A police officer once told me privately, that the police automatically regard anyone who stands up for the rights of White people as a ‘racist’, and as we all know, they regard racism as criminal behaviour. Therefore, anyone who stands up for the rights of White people is in the eyes of the police, by definition, a ‘criminal’.

Any nationalist who enters into a relationship with the police should expect therefore to be disrespectfully treated – to be treated as a criminal – and as Gary Shopland found out to his cost, routinely humiliated before being unceremoniously dumped when you are of no further use.

If you are blackmailed by the police, the best course of action is to approach a senior colleague and tell them, so that arrangements can be made to neutralise the basis of that blackmail. No prior offence is so heinous or so damning that is worth betraying our people and our nation in an attempt to conceal, and as Gary Shopland’s story amply demonstrates your reputation will be tarnished and your life will in any event be ruined by the experience, so don’t allow yourself to be used and abused in that way

EI. Either/Or

Onto the portrait of the Cypherpunk, assembling his Fortress of Solitude there in lines of code that bloom across the livid glow of a desktop screen, the writer David Brin introduces a new and unobtrusive detail. Practically as small as a dust mote: a tiny surveillance camera, unblinking, drinking in every keystroke, observing and unobserved, somewhere just behind our Cypherpunk’s shoulder, it effortlessly circumvents his Strong Privacy in a publicity that is stronger still. “[E]ncyption,” writes Brin, “would have stymied hardly any of the surveillance techniques used by the Gestapo, or Beria’s NKVD, let alone the far more advanced abilities that will be available in an age of gnat cameras, data ferrets, and spy satellites.” 

David Brin is a physicist, a widely popular Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science fiction novelist, and a controversial essayist on questions of technology policy and popular technoculture. In his 1998 book, The Transparent Society, he proposed the thesis that the ongoing proliferation and intensification of surveillance techniques is inevitable, that it is likely to transform the meaning of privacy in everyday life, if not obliterate it altogether, and that, quite contrary to prevailing attitudes in these matters, all of this might be a welcome development after all.

Brin’s argument shares with the Cypherpunks an insistently reiterated commitment to a value he calls “openness.” But where for Eric Hughes, say, openness appears to demand the strongest possible individual control over the terms in which personal information circulates publicly, for Brin openness appears to demand, almost exactly to the contrary, an unprecedented exposure of such information by everyone, to everyone, and for everyone’s sake. 

The Transparent Society begins with an emblematic image, “a tale of two cities.” Superficially these cities appear to be identical to one another, and in fact appear little different from conventional American cities of the present day. Where they differ palpably from contemporary cities (he proposes) is in their almost complete lack of discernible public disruption or criminal behavior. But where they differ more importantly, and for Brin the more noticeable lack of criminality presumably follows from this latter difference, is in a “real change [that] peers down from every lamppost, every rooftop and street sign.” This difference? “Tiny cameras, panning left and right, survey traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view.” And he will go on to amplify, the cameras are not simply observing public conduct, but recording it and archiving it, and interminably subjecting it to automatic digital cross-inferential scanning techniques in swelling global databases that correlate faces and behaviors and public records of all kinds, and on and on and on.

But more significant than these quite stunning differences the two cities share in contrast to the cities of the present day (or at any rate did at the time when he wrote The Transparent Society), is for Brin a deeper difference that distinguishes them from one another despite their similarities. In one of these ideal cities, as Brin tells the tale, “all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central,” while in the other city, “each and every citizen of this metropolis can use his or her wristwatch television to call up images from any camera in town.” 

One can quibble about the details in this illustrative fable, about whether or not everybody in the tale’s more “utopian” city really can afford all the Dick Tracy gee-whiz wrist-gizmos, about whether or not the “non-citizens” of this fair metropolis have a comparable shake at open access. But what matters here for Brin is the decisive difference between the social effects that would likely arise from “universal” (or at any rate conspicuously wide) access to the information corralled in this gathering glut of ubiquitous surveillance as against the effects arising instead from restricted public access to the same information in the control of particular authorities or powerful groups. “Despite their initial similarity,” he writes, “these are very different cities, representing disparate ways of life, completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians.” 

Brin readily concedes that readers might “find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable.” But then he pronounces the assumption that organizes and mobilizes the energies of the argument that will follow for the next three hundred pages: either/or

“But can there be any doubt which city we’d rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?” he wheedles. With the proposal of this rather stark dilemma the initial section of the book concludes, followed by a section heading announcing in a bold typeface: “TECHNOLOGY’S VERDICT.” A technologist’s verdict is sure to follow hard upon the heels of such a declaration. Thereupon, Brin begins the next section of the book with what is, of course, a prescription masquerading as a description and all but a foregone conclusion: “Alas,” (and how reluctantly Brin accedes to the “inevitable” here!) “they do appear to be our only options.” 

It is the breathtaking multiplication of closed circuit television cameras monitoring public places in Great Britain, in Japan, in Thailand, in Singapore, and in some places in the United States, most notably New York City, that impels the narrative urgency of The Transparent Society, and lends its formulations their ready intelligibility, its predictions their tremulous ache of near inevitability, and its recommendations their stark forcefulness. “Today, over 300,000 cameras are in place throughout the United Kingdom,” wrote Brin in 1998. All of these cameras are “transmitting round-the-clock images to a hundred constabularies,” and, more to the point, “all of them reporting decreases in public misconduct.” Because, no doubt, the decrease in misconduct is widely attributed to the increase in surveillance, Brin unsurprisingly notes that (unspecified) “[p]olls report the cameras are extremely popular with citizens,” even if, he goes on drolly to qualify, “civil libertarian John Waddham and others have bemoaned this proliferation of snoop technology, claiming… ‘it could be abused.’” 

In an article published online on half a decade later, in August, 2004, and more or less reiterating his earlier thesis, Brin compares the time in which he wrote the book to the current state of affairs: “In the mid-’90s, when I began writing The Transparent Society it seemed dismaying to note that Great Britain had almost 150,000 CCD police cameras scanning public streets. Today, they number in the millions.” And to the example of surveillance cameras, Brin adds other recent developments in surveillance technology: cheap, ubiquitous radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, sophisticated software that tracks movements and compiles eerily powerfully predictive personal profiles from data mined and correlated from various public sources of information, and other techniques.

There is no denying at least the broad and gathering outline of the technological storm front of unprecedented surveillance Brin documents in these writings. And it is easy to agree with him that at the very least the expectations and experiences and customs that have come to freight the notion of privacy in the present day will surely transform under pressure of these technological developments in quite fundamental ways. 

Many civil libertarians will be quick to recoil from and decry Brin’s vision of a more democratized distribution of ubiquitous surveillance as no less an Orwellian nightmare in the end than the explicitly despotic deployments of ubiquitous surveillance that preoccupy his own concern. But Brin insists that any such blanket repudiation of ubiquitous surveillance is dangerously naïve, since, at this general level at least, “none of those who denounce the new [surveillance] technologies have shown how it will be possible to stop this rising tide.” And for Brin, in any case, “one of the most oppressive metaphors in literature” bequeathed to us by Orwell, the image in fact in which we find the most characteristic expression of the conjunction of surveillance and tyranny we have come to label as most fearfully “Orwellian,” is the figure of “the telescreen.” But, Brin insists we recall that “[t]he worst aspect of Orwell’s telescreen –- the trait guaranteeing [its] tyranny -– was not that agents of the state could use it to see. The one thing that despots truly need is to avoid accountability. In 1984, this was achieved by keeping the telescreen aimed in just one direction! By preventing people from looking back.” It is not for Brin the fact that technology will likely facilitate a more intensive and extensive scrutiny of the details of our personal lives that constitutes its primary threat to our freedom, but the fact that this technologically augmented gaze might emanate exclusively from vantages of privilege, without eyes in the world it surveys comparably empowered to return that gaze and hence check its abuses. 

And so, it is easy to affirm the general narrative that Brin spins here to set the scene in which he will make his case. Also, it is certainly appealing that Brin’s avowed focus in his writings on this topic is to promote a “democratization” of surveillance through the equitable distribution of these new technologies, and to insist on the priority of the greatest possible public accountability in the uses to which these new technologies are and will be put. But it is frankly much more difficult to follow along as he goes on to hang his hat on the horns of the curiously superlative dilemma, the hyperbolic “either/or” through which he goes on to frame his more specific case for what he will call transparency.

Far from inevitabilities, the contemporary distribution of these technologies suggests that developmental outcomes that would concentrate ubiquitous surveillance almost exclusively into the hands of powerful corporate and governmental elites, or that would distribute ubiquitous surveillance in a way instead that was universally and uniformly available to all represent in fact almost equally vanishingly unlikely prospects. The distribution of the exquisitely powerful surveillance technologies that Brin and others reasonably anticipate will almost surely be as lumpy as the distribution of technological capacities always has been hitherto. And we can expect that both access to and abuses of these technologies will likewise be profoundly uneven and ungainly. 

This is not to say that I entertain romantic fantasies of inevitable “gaps in the grid,” of spaces of wilderness in which something like comfortably familiar privacies might still be fleshed out against the grain of prevailing digital publicities. Neither do I deny Brin’s position that what is most pernicious about emerging surveillance technologies is their susceptibility to abuse by unaccountable authorities or privileged elites. But we can easily and in fact much better accommodate such insights without making recourse to the conventionally libertarian figural terrain conjured up in Brin’s formulations, bounded by the dread of centralized authority embodied by “Big Brother” on the one hand and by the dream of unlimited and frictionless agency embodied by “transparency” on the other.

I find a much more likely and compelling figure for the emerging scene in Jamais Cascio’s image of a “participatory panopticon” of ubiquitous but conspicuously unevenly distributed surveillance, consisting of a practical and discursive tangle of many cooperating and competing monitors, from multiple (but hardly universal and not necessarily always even particularly plural) social and cultural locations, making recourse to a wide array of quite differently sensitive technologies, sometimes providing thin, fuzzy coverage vulnerable to disputed interpretations, sometimes providing thick, overabundant coverage and already disputed interpretations. 

“Transparency” is scarcely the first word that would occur to me to denote such a breezing, buzzing confusion of surveillance, description, and disputation. 

I want to be very careful to insist that my point here is not to propose some more “moderate” middle ground between what I might seem to be characterizing as Brin’s entrapment by immoderate idealizations. As a rule, Brin is in fact quite scrupulous about qualifying the claims he makes. My point is that the characteristic figures through which Brin articulates his case persistently nudge him into misdiagnoses of the threats that rightly preoccupy his concern and mischaracterizations of their remedies. 

For instance, in his essay “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society” Brin is quite interested in what he describes as the “dispersed ownership” of surveillance technologies in the United States today. He discusses how much of the key footage that has defined recent media and surveillance discourse –- from the beating of Rodney King, to the Oklahoma City bombing, the D.C. sniper episode, and the World Trade Center attacks in New York –- was captured by private surveillance cameras in convenience stores, or by tourists with camcorders, or by people with everyday cellphones in their hands, rather than surveillance cameras maintained by the police or other public authorities. 

But it would be profoundly misleading to misrecognize such dispersal as universal: Even where dispersed ownership of monitoring and media devices has occasionally documented and so provided a welcome check on the abusive conduct of misbehaving authorities it would be mistaken to identify this state of affairs with the ubiquitous surveillance and open access Brin describes as transparency, or to discern in a particular congenial outcome from surveillance the workings of the regulative energies Brin attributes to his transparency.

More importantly, neither does it seem particularly illuminating to identify the current dispersal of surveillance technologies as a moment in a developmental trajectory that will inevitably eventuate in something like an “Orwellian” authoritarian concentration nor some more “transparent” and general access to surveillance data. We can read neither superlative outcome in the current distribution of technology, and our assessments of the promises and dangers inhering in this current distribution are scarcely sharpened by contemplating their distance from such outcomes. What will matter as we address and redress the emerging scene of technological surveillance from moment to moment will be, not to put too fine a point on it, to count the cameras, and to determine just who is aiming them at whom.

In his recent book No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, Robert O’Harrow is particularly concerned, for example, to document the unique ways in which conventional expectations of privacy are especially undermined by a conspicuous contemporary privatization of information gathering to which governments and other authorities are increasingly making recourse. This troubling development, writes O’Harrow, is especially pronounced in the current environment of so-called “anti-terror” initiatives in which security concerns will often be said to trump concerns about civil liberties. Now, how well are we prepared to think through the particular risks and occasions for resistance inhering in the emergence of what O’Harrow calls “a security-industrial complex” by a Brinian discourse of “transparency,” when it is precisely the familiar rhetoric of dispersal, decentralization, and competition in the provision of surveillance services that offers the working rationale for the possibly pernicious loss of proper public accountability over that surveillance?