Updates to this story
The Metropolitan Police has closed down FITwatch.org.uk because it was “being used to undertake criminal activities”. Or pervert the course of justice. The site’s US-based hosting company justhost.com was contacted by the Metropolitan Police after FITwatch posted advice to students who feel they may be targeted after a demonstration against education cuts resulted in over fifty arrests and many broken windows at Conservative Party headquarters.
FITwatch is a blog and network of people dedicated to the protection of citizens’ identities from the all-seeing-eye of the Forward Intelligence Teams across the country. The Forward Intelligence Team, or FIT, is a branch of the police that overtly monitors the public with the use of cameras, camcorders and audio devices. They usually consist of two police officers and one civilian photographer. Their activities include but are not limited to surveying activists and football fans.
One of the primary complaints about the FIT is the invasiveness of the evidence they gather. If you have ever attended a demonstration in the UK, it is likely the police have an electronic image of you on their database. The more often you are seen at demonstrations, the more likely you are to appear on a ‘spotter card’ – a pocket-sized guide carried by public order intelligence officers to identify you in a crowd.
FITwatch was the brainchild of people who voluntarily counter police surveillance with sousveillance – they actively place themselves in front of a lens to enable other activists to carry on with lawful dissent. Part of their campaign is to show people their rights should they find themselves on the wrong side of the police. They also provide spotter cards of their own – with photos of known police intelligence officers.
FITwatch activities go beyond activist paranoia. Climate activists have been arrested retrospectively – sometimes with little more than the clothes they wore at a demonstration as evidence for their detention.
Halfway across the planet in Singapore lives the world’s shiniest dictatorship. Journalist Alan Shadrake was sentenced to six weeks in prison for claiming Singapore’s justice system applied the death sentence for political ends. Shadrake is 76, recently recovered from cancer and published his ‘defamation’ in his book Once a Jolly Hangman.
Also fined nearly £10,000GBP, Shadrake’s sentence cements Singapore’s intolerance to criticism and free expression. If something isn’t compulsory, it’s illegal.
A visitor to the island could be easily forgiven to think it’s all about shopping, investments and expats. Their government takes great pains to hide the fact they have a vice-like grip on what their people can and can’t do. Their laws against chewing gum are only the tip of the iceberg.
Unauthorised public demonstrations are illegal. You need a police permit for gatherings of more than four people and if you’re in a group of more than five people, you can be prosecuted for obstruction. You also need a permit if you want to hold an assembly of one or more people in a public place to which members of the public are invited. You can only hold public demonstrations in one place - Speakers’ Corner. If you’re unfortunate enough to be foreign, you need a permit to participate in that demonstration. Penalties can range from fines to jail to deportation. They flog you for criminal damage and lock you up for homosexual kissing.
Media is strictly controlled. Communications, although some of the fastest in the world, are heavily monitored. Crackdowns and arrests, unless involving foreigners like Shadrake, are quiet but real affairs. Singaporeans born under Lee Kwan Yew and his son are paradoxes. They’re worldly and well travelled yet coaxed into obeisance to their country’s draconian orders. Civil unrest is very rare. It’s David Cameron’s idea of paradise.
Thanks to the glory of the internet, nearly seventy websites republished FITwatch’s blog post. The Metropolitan Police is refusing to say whether they are seeking to shut those sites down too. The blog post offered advice on contacting legal support groups and what to do if you fear you may be arrested as a result of CCTV, press or police surveillance photography.
Shadrake’s offence was reassuringly low tech. He published a book. Thanks to the publicity surrounding his arrest, possibly a best-selling one. FITwatch’s closure was decidedly high tech. It is only a matter of time for their website to reappear on the world wide web in one form or another – perhaps in multiple formats to give the police some extra work.
What these two cases share are governments who, in an attempt to control their citizens, shoot themselves in the foot with actions so unjust that people can’t help but pay attention and feel outrage.
Thanks to social media, news of both events crashed through the internet with frightening speed. One lesson authorities have to learn is that nothing happens without someone putting it online and spreading it around the globe. Blogs are the screams of the masses and Twitter is its klaxon.
Malcolm X said that the media is the most powerful entity on earth because it controls the minds of the masses. Let’s add the word ‘social’ to ‘media’. Because if states want to control their people, they will have to pull a North Korea and smash the internet. But someone will Tweet about it and turn it into what is described in social media circles as an "epic fail".