Demonstration at BT headquarters- privatised surveillance won’t keep us safe

Demonstration at BT headquarters- privatised surveillance won’t keep us safe

A small but vocal group protested outside the BT headquarters in the City of London on Sunday, 10th October, the day after Priti Patel announced her support for a new app to track women’s movements. The mobile phone app, “888”, which will cost the government £50 million, is to be used to track women walking home alone at night – and send an automatic message to the police if the woman doesn’t log that she has arrived at her stated destination. The protest, called by the feminist collective Feminist Fightback, set out to assert that in the current climate of police violence, misogyny and racism, increased police powers and digital surveillance are part of the problem. Rather than hand over £50m to a private company, allowing BT to profit from women’s legitimate fears, the protest made the case for the government giving the money to underfunded domestic violence services, women’s refuges and community organisations that empower women.

Feminists gathered on Sunday afternoon in St Pauls, holding banners which said “BT – stop profiteering from women’s fear” and “Feminists say No to the Surveillance State”. A speech touched on how inappropriate it was to pay a privatised communications company to manage women’s safety, how the new app was part of ever-increasing digital surveillance, and how an increase in police powers could actually worsen the situation, especially for those communities who continue to bear the brunt of police brutality.

Participants chanted “The Met Police don’t keep us safe” and handed out leaflets explaining the #KillTheBill campaign to passers-by. Frances Grahl, a university lecturer who attended the protest, said “It’s unbelievable that, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s abduction, rape and murder by a policeman, the Home Secretary’s response is to pay £50 million for an app that monitors the movements of women, instead of monitoring the police.” Another protester, Josie Foreman, said “just as the full extent of institutionalised misogyny in the police force is exposed, the Home Secretary continues to push ahead with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will hand even more power to officers like Wayne Couzens.”

The Police don’t keep us safe

This new move to outsource women’s safety in the street to a mobile phone app came in the context of new revelations about police forces across the country since the Sarah Everard murder trial. On Sunday the Observer revealed that a third of police forces reported allegations of sexual assault and harassment against their own officers to the police watchdog in the days following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens. Sixteen women have been killed by a police officer since 2009. One woman every week comes forward to report a serving officer for domestic or sexual violence. The Police Commissioner for North Yorkshire, is facing calls to resign after saying Sarah Everard “never should have submitted” to arrest by her murderer. The Met is in disarray following a number of high-profile allegations by former female officers, with calls for the resignation of commissioner Cressida Dick gaining mainstream traction.

Neither is this a new situation. The last month has also seen a new conclusion in the SpyCops case, with a judgement which severely criticised the actions of the Metropolitan Police, coming after ten years of campaigning by Kate Wilson and other victims of police infiltration into activist groups. The case itself heard testimonies, some going back decades, about undercover police placed often for little reason into feminist, left wing, anti-racist and environmental networks. The court found that senior officers had condoned or ignored abuses of powers which went on for years – Kate Wilson herself described the Met as “an institution that is, in my opinion, beyond redemption”.

Inquest, a charity which supports those affected by deaths connected to the state, counts nearly 1800 deaths following contact with the police since 1990, and comments on the greater proportion of Black and minority ethnicity people who die in police custody or following physical contact by the police. The heart-breaking murders of Sarah Everard in March and Sabina Nessa in September have to be read against a context where people of colour, neurodiverse people, sex workers, homeless people and other groups have long voiced concerns about the danger and fear that interactions with UK police forces can cause.

Digital Surveillance brings its own dangers

The proposed app itself immediately seems open to abuse. Against a context in which Facebook is being criticised for “putting profit over safety” by a whistleblower, in which Google has erased the Palestinian names of illegally occupied territories from its Maps software, and with Twitter under fire for failing to prevent racist and far-right attacks, new developments by private business needs to be approached cautiously. In the latest “racist algorithms” scandal Uber drivers have been fired due to faulty face-scanning software which can’t distinguish some Black people’s faces. Tech companies can’t be trusted to put their users’ safety first in the rush to develop lucrative new software.

The proposed app is supposed to automatically send location data to the police if a woman doesn’t arrive at her destination. This kind of data sharing once again puts the onus on women- not to linger in public space, not to change their plans, to rush home. And the dangers of the police being automatically alerted and turning up are huge. What if the woman has stopped to talk to a friend and they attack him or her? What if she, as Sarah Everard may have done, has committed a minor Covid infraction or has another reason to worry about police contact, and the situation escalates? What if the data of vulnerable women walking home is shared with another Wayne Couzens, or makes its way onto toxic police WhatsApp groups like the ones who mocked photos of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry?

In the case of the BT “888” app, the implication of this latest announcement is that the government are rushing out any solution they can think of to mask the growing scandal. The Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, with her job also on the line, suggested women resist suspicious police arrest by “flagging down a bus”, a ludicrous proposal later backed by Boris Johnson. Other statements also emphasize a need for women to be more careful, to take fewer risks, and, now, to resist arrest by so-called “rogue” officers – a new development in a discourse of victim blaming which takes the focus off those causing the problem- the perpetrators of street violence and assault, including police officers. Grassroots initiatives such as the recently-announced police intervention training from feminist collective Sisters Uncut and the Kill The Bill Coalition can be really positive interventions into this grim landscape, but meanwhile the message from the state is that women and other groups vulnerable to street attack must take on the full burden of protecting themselves from abuse and assault.

Uniting our Struggles

 Feminist Fightback are part of the Kill the Bill coalition – a coalition of over 40 activist groups formed in March 2021 to take collective action against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Our feminist opposition to the bill, which passed in the House of Lords on 6th July 2021, can be found here, set into a wider context of opposition by anti-racist activists, trade unions, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, sex worker collectives, boat-dwellers, police monitoring projects and more. We must stand together to oppose any increase in police powers and to ensure that our ability to protest and organise politically continues. The recent discussions about women’s safety (including from the police) can’t be detached from our right to protest; neither can it be allowed to ignore those women who have historically been targeted by police and state violence.