Inside the secret world of the corporate spies who infiltrate protests

Major firms hiring people from corporate security firms to monitor and infiltrate political groups that object to their commercial activities

A 2008 protest in London
A corporate spy infiltrated a 2008 protests that were demanding firms ‘get their hands off Iraqi oil’. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

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It was perhaps not the most glamorous assignment for a spy. Toby Kendall’s mission was to dress up as a pirate, complete with eye-patch, bandana and cutlass, and infiltrate a group of protesters.

The campaigners had organised a walking tour of London to protest outside the premises of multinational firms, objecting to what they believed was the corporate plunder of Iraq.

To make their point in a colourful way, they wore pirates’ costumes as they banged drums on a wintry Saturday to implore the firms to get “their hands off Iraqi oil”.

Kendall, a 23-year-old Oxford University graduate, joined the protesters as their march snaked through the streets of the capital. What the protesters did not know at that time was that Kendall was a corporate infiltrator working for a private security firm called C2i International.

Two days after the protest in 2008, his employer sent a client what it called a “corporate threat intelligence alert” – a confidential memo that detailed what had happened on the demonstration.

“Members of Hands Off Iraqi Oil, War on Want, London Rising Tide and Art Not Oil along with friends and sympathisers dressed up in pirate paraphernalia [went] to visit sites of companies that they consider to be exploiting the war in Iraq and especially their fossil fuel reserves.

“An amalgamation of members of the samba bands Rhythms of Resistance and Barking Samba played during the procession … Passersby were amused by the costumes and theatre and engaged as the group passed them.”

The alert is one of hundreds of pages of leaked documents from two corporate security firms that have been seen by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

They shine a rare light on a habitually secretive industry in which large firms hire covert operatives to monitor and infiltrate political groups that object to their commercial activities. At a premium is advance information, tipping off the firms about protests that are being organised against them.

The leaked C2i documents, ranging from boardroom minutes to humdrum matters such as holiday entitlements for staff, reveal four firms that hired the corporate security firm – British Airways, Royal Bank of Scotland, Caterpillar and Porsche.

The second set of leaks relate to a Kent-based corporate security firm, the Inkerman Group, which employed former Met commissioner Lord Imbert as a strategic adviser in the past.

Caterpillar, the manufacturing firm, had also hired Inkerman. An email by a Caterpillar manager states that in 2005 “Caterpillar have been working very closely with the Inkerman Group, this partnership has been very successful in providing Caterpillar a pro-active approach to activism directed against Caterpillar facilities in the UK”.

Energy firm RWE npower said it had used Inkerman “to provide us with intelligence on potential threats or issues in the form of weekly reports and ad hoc updates”. This arrangement had been terminated in 2009.

RWE Generation UK, which now runs the power stations for the firm, said it only uses “publicly available and openly-sourced information to inform us of potential issues” and only hires private security firms to guard its sites, not to gather information on political groups.

The leaked documents suggest that corporate security firms frequently run espionage operations to gather information on protesters, including infiltrating private meetings and obtaining internal documents.

However, they are subject to little or no regulation. This has attracted criticism from police, who have in the past called the deployment of corporate spies “completely uncontrolled and unrestrained”.

Since 1968, the police have sent more than 140 undercover officers to spy on over 1,000 political groups. However, senior officers have claimed that there have been more corporate spies embedded in protest groups than police officers.

Critics say the security firms are spying on law-abiding campaigners and impeding their democratic rights. The Guardian has spoken to a man who claimed that he had infiltrated political groups for a corporate espionage firm. He declined to give his name or say which groups he had spied on.

He described how the spies surreptitiously fostered conflicts within a campaign to set activists against each other, in order to wear them down and make them lose their political motivation. “People get tired of it, that’s their weakness,” he said.

Another concern is that former state employees are recruited to work for corporate firms, trading on the surveillance skills they learned in the public sector. Often the credentials of former police officers are explicitly advertised when corporate security firms tout for business.

One of C2i’s employees is revealed to have been Wilf Knight. Now dead, he worked for more than a decade in Special Branch, where he supervised an undercover police officer who spied on anti-apartheid campaigners.

The leaked documents sketch out a picture of how C2i gathered information about political groups, including local environmental campaigns in Bath and Bristol, and then confidentially distributed the results of their espionage to their clients. These were large firms, which were assigned code-names drawn often from people’s names such as Xena or Radella.

Kendall was one of two infiltrators employed by C2i. He masqueraded as a campaigner, using the fake name of “Ken Tobias”, in political groups such as the anti-aviation campaign, Plane Stupid. Inside information about the environmentalists was sold to C2i’s clients.

A C2i invoice identifies British Airways as one of its clients. British Airways said it never discussed “detailed matters of security in public”.

However, it added that it had hired C2i for “on a one-month trial basis” before it terminated the contract because Kendall had been unmasked in 2008 by Plane Stupid activists.

The campaigners had become suspicious of Kendall because he turned up to meetings with militaristic punctuality and dressed too well in Armani jeans but with a Palestinian scarf.

Another C2i employee infiltrated environmental group Rising Tide, which protested against banks. C2i passed details of protests to the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which said it had stopped working with C2i in 2008.

The bank said: “RBS no longer uses these kinds of firms to gather information and has not done so for the last five years.

“Like all major companies we take any threat to our physical security, and that of our staff and customers very seriously and work with a small number of recognised security companies on this. We require these companies to observe the spirit and letter of the law.”

Porsche, which faced environmental protests, was another C2i client. Porsche said it was “sensible and responsible” to hire C2i for a short period in 2008 to receive “information on the timing of upcoming demonstrations” as its centre in Mayfair, London, had been a “target for protesters and the property had been damaged during such protests”.

C2i documents show that it sent details of a planned demonstration to Porsche before it happened. Porsche said it believed that the contract with C2i was the only time it had hired security firms to monitor protesters.

The Guardian has previously disclosed that three large energy firms – E.ON, Scottish Resources Group and Scottish Power – had used another private security firm, Vericola, to monitor environmental activists secretly.

Other corporations which have been revealed as having hired corporate spies to monitor political campaigners include Britain’s biggest arms firm BAE and burger giant McDonald’s.

If you would like to pass on information in confidence, you can send a message via the Guardian’s SecureDrop service. See how here

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