Rob Evans @robevansgdn
The police watchdog is investigating allegations that a secretive Scotland Yard unit used hackers to illegally access the private emails of hundreds of political campaigners and journalists.
The allegations were made by an anonymous individual who says the unit worked with Indian police, who in turn used hackers to illegally obtain the passwords of the email accounts of the campaigners, and some reporters and press photographers.
Hacked passwords were passed to the Metropolitan police unit, according to the writer of the letter, which then regularly checked the emails of the campaigners and the media to gather information. The letter to Jones listed the passwords of environmental campaigners, four of whom were from Greenpeace. Several confirmed they matched the ones they had used to open their emails.
The letter said: “For a number of years the unit had been illegally accessing the email accounts of activists. This has largely been accomplished because of the contact that one of the officers had developed with counterparts in India who in turn were using hackers to obtain email passwords.”
Jones said: “There is more than enough to justify a full-scale criminal investigation into the activities of these police officers and referral to a public inquiry. I have urged the Independent Police Complaints Commission to act quickly to secure further evidence and to find out how many people were victims of this nasty practice.”
The letter also alleges that emails of reporters and photographers, including two working for the Guardian, were monitored. A spokesperson for the Guardian said: “Allegations that the Metropolitan police has accessed the email accounts of Guardian journalists are extremely concerning and we expect a full and thorough investigation into these claims.”
The IPCC has for several months been investigating claims that the national domestic extremism and disorder intelligence unit shredded a large number of documents over a number of days in May 2014.
Last month the IPCC said it had uncovered evidence suggesting the documents had been destroyed despite a specific instruction that files should be preserved to be examined by a judge-led public inquiry into the undercover policing of political groups.
The letter claimed that the shredding “has been happening for some time and on a far greater scale than the IPCC seems to be aware of”. The author added that “the main reason for destroying these documents is that they reveal that [police] officers were engaged in illegal activities to obtain intelligence on protest groups”.
The letter to Jones lists 10 individuals, alongside specific passwords that they used to access their email accounts. Lawyers at Bindmans, who are representing Jones, contacted six on the list and, after outlining the allegations, asked them to volunteer their passwords.
Five of them gave the identical password that had been identified in the letter. The sixth gave a password that was almost the same. The remaining four on the list have yet to be approached or cannot be traced.
Colin Newman has for two decades volunteered to help organise mainly local Greenpeace protests which he says were publicised to the media. He used the password specified in the letter for his private email account between the late 1990s and last year.
Newman said he felt “angry and violated, especially for the recipients”. He added: “I am open about my actions as I make a stand and am personally responsible for those, but it is not fair and just that others are scrutinised.
“I am no threat. There is no justification for snooping in private accounts unless you have a reason to do so, and you have the authority to do that.”
He said he had been cautioned by the police once, for trespassing on the railway during a protest against coal about two years ago.
Another on the list was Cat Dorey who has worked for Greenpeace, both as an employee and a volunteer, since 2001. She said all the protests she had been involved in were non-violent.
The password specified in the letter sent to Jones had been used for emails that contained private information about her family and friends.
She said: “Even though Greenpeace UK staff, volunteers, and activists were always warned to assume someone was listening to our phone conversations or reading our emails, it still came as a shock to find out I was being watched by the police. It’s creepy to think of strangers reading my personal emails.”
In 2005, she was part of a group of Greenpeace protesters who were sentenced to 80 hours of community service after installing solar panels on the home of the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, in a climate change demonstration.
According to the letter, the “most sensitive side of the work was monitoring the email accounts of radical journalists who reported on activist protests (as well as sympathetic photographers) including at least two employed by the Guardian newspaper”. None were named.
Investigators working for the IPCC have met Jones twice with her lawyer, Jules Carey, and have asked to interview the peer. An IPCC spokesperson said: “After requesting and receiving a referral by the Metropolitan police service, we have begun an independent investigation related to anonymous allegations concerning the accessing of personal data. We are still assessing the scope of the investigation and so we are not able to comment further.”
The letter’s writer said he or she had spoken out about the “serious abuse of power” because “over the years, the unit had evolved into an organisation that had little respect for the law, no regard for personal privacy, encouraged highly immoral activity and, I believe, is a disgrace”.
In recent years, the unit has monitored thousands of political activists, drawing on information gathered by undercover officers and informants as well as from open sources such as websites. Police chiefs say they need to keep track of a wide pool of activists to identify the small number who commit serious crime to promote their cause.
But the unit has come in for criticism after it was revealed to be compiling files on law-abiding campaigners, including John Catt, a 91-year-old pensioner with no criminal record as well as senior members of the Green party including the MP Caroline Lucas.
The Metropolitan police said the IPCC had made it “aware of anonymous allegations concerning the accessing of personal data, and requested the matters were referred to them by the MPS. This was done. The MPS is now aware that the IPCC are carrying out an independent investigation.”
• If you would like to pass on information in confidence, you can send a message via the Guardian’s SecureDrop service (see how here).