I’ve written here in the past about British blacklisting organisations that compile lists of ‘troublemakers’ (mainly union activists) and sell them to building firms and share them with police. This has led to people being unable to get jobs and all kinds of hassle. In theory, the notorious Economic League which started this activity back in the 1920s is now disbanded but their mantle was taken up by a number of other private bodies, including the Consulting Association, which was the subject of an unusual raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2009.
Now it seems that in the era of transnational information sharing for ‘security’, such lists have found their way to the US Homeland Security complex. According to a report in the London Evening Standard, his certainly seems to be the case for major British mainstream environmental campaigner, John Stewart, formerly of the anti-road building lobby, Alarm UK and now of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN).
If such private politically motivated lists are now circulating internationally and being treated as reasonable grounds for refusing entry to other countries, it makes a mockery of the fact that they have already been found to be in breach of British and European laws, and it is likely that such data will continue to circulate entirely decontextualized from the circumstances and motivation of their collection. So an illegal anti-democratic trawling operation to stop legitimate political activity becomes the basis for security decisions to err… safeguard democracy. It would be funny if it wasn’t already so common and will continue to be so as security relies increasingly on risk assessments derived from the indiscriminate mashing together of information into ‘big data’.
For some time, I’ve been concerned about the little-discussed practice of ‘blacklisting’, the creation and sale of databases of workers thought to be troublemakers, radicals or union activists. Last year, I noted the failed attempt by the British government to legitimise this activity with the creation of the National Dismissal Register, and connected this to earlier surveillance of workers through the Economic League. See this more recent post where I summarised the story in a slightly different context.
But the Economic League, set up after WW1 and finally closed in 1993, had several offshoots. Now, as reported in most of the British press, one of them has been closed down by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). ‘The Consulting Association’, a firm based in Droitwich, Worcestershire had apparently been operating for 15 years selling confidential information on construction workers to all the major building companies. According to the BBC, 3,213 workers’ names were contained on the list and were categorised by political affiliations and union activity etc.
Not surprisingly the firm was owned and run by one Ian Kerr, who was previously involved in the Economic League and who still seems to think he was doing nothing wrong, despite his past, and despite the fact that he had previously denied even the existence of this database. But he, along with all the clients named by the report, including Amec, Taylor Woodrow, Laing O’Rourke and Balfour Beatty and many others – there is a full list on the Guardian site – were breaking the Data Protection Act by illegally keeping and trading in personal information. We’ll see whether the big building firms get away with it; most likely they will simply claim that that they didn’t know the data was illegally acquired and traded.
Given the recent history of the National Dismissal Register to set up databases of troublesome workers, it is particularly ironic that minister, Peter Mandelson, is quoted as applauding this action by the ICO in the various reports.