Hunting and anti-hunting groups locked in tit-for-tat row over data gathering

Longstanding disagreements between hunting groups and anti-hunting activists have broken out into allegations of illegal data gathering from both sides.

Activists claim that two leaked internal documents created by pro-hunting groups suggest they are collecting and holding personal information on hunt saboteurs – activists that use sabotage as a form of direct action to stop illegal fox hunting – and further suggest the data is being shared with counter-terror police.

The saboteurs have accused the hunting groups of illegally collecting their personal information and are now seeking to instigate multiple claims under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

However, there are allegations these documents have been obtained illegally and may be the subject of a criminal investigation. The hunt supporters involved are also concerned how personal information about hunt members might be used by the activists, following a series of recent data breaches.

The hunting groups and hunt saboteurs deny engaging in any illegal activity.

Monthly reports on anti-hunting activists

The data collection practices of the Hunting Office (HO), a central organisation delegated to run the administrative, advisory and supervisory functions of the UK’s hunting associations, and the Countryside Alliance (CA), a campaign organisation with over 100,000 members that promotes rural issues, have been questioned by activists running a website called Hunting Leaks.

The website owners said that a monthly round-up of anti-hunting activity – which appears to have been shared via email with hunts across the UK – was passed on to Hunting Leaks by an undisclosed animal rights group.

The leaked document, a report on saboteur activity between 14 November and 12 December 2020, lists the names of anti-hunting groups, the names of 30 activists (some of which are referred to multiple times) and information about their vehicles, including registration numbers. 

It also includes information on the number of anti-hunting activists in attendance, details about their movements and activity on a given hunt day, as well as guidance for how hunt members should approach collecting information and video footage.

For example, it said that hunt members should not engage with saboteurs as they use heavily edited footage on social media to discredit hunts, and that any photographs or video footage should be gathered in a non-confrontational manner so as not to put hunt supporters in any dangerous situations.

The document further states the collection of this information has directly led to a number of successful convictions against hunt opponents.

In response to questions from Computer Weekly, the CA said its practices are compliant with GDPR, adding that detailed legal advice was sought and clear processes have been put in place.

A CA spokesperson said: “There is no justification for leaking and publishing the details of private individuals who support a lawful activity other than to intimidate them and leave them vulnerable to harassment. We hope the police will investigate this matter thoroughly and punish those responsible appropriately.”

Data protection concerns

The Telegraph reported on 22 January 2021 that three hunts – the New Forest Hounds, the Cottesmore Hunt and the Mendip Farmers’ Hunt – have all been hit by data breaches this month, where home addresses and contact details were published online by anti-hunting groups, although it is unclear if the breaches are connected to the leaks in question.

The breaches have prompted police to write to hundreds of hunt members, warning them to secure their digital footprints and review the security of their properties while the incidents are being investigated.

Benjamin Mancroft, chairman of the HO, told the Telegraph: “We are investigating the source of the breaches and cases of illegal hacking of our members’ private email accounts, as well as the theft of personal data by animal rights extremists.

“We take these security breaches very seriously – this coordinated attack from anti-hunt groups and resultant online harassment of our members and the potential exposure to violence and criminal damage is something our community should not have to tolerate.”

A post on the Hunting Leaks website said: “The Countryside Alliance claim to use the ‘prevention of crime’ as an excuse to get round GDPR regs [regulations] and then create these reports which they broadcast to every hunt in the country. Yet in this most recent of reports covering the entire country for four weeks, there is not one incident where saboteurs have been arrested and charged.”

Nothing we’ve been given looks like it’s from hacked emails. Any allegation that what we have put out has been illegally obtained is just that – an allegation
Ernie Goldman, Hunting Leaks member

Ernie Goldman, a member of Hunting Leaks, said the documents passed on to the group come from a variety of sources – including anonymous senders and even people clearly involved in hunting themselves – but he claimed there is nothing to suggest they were illegally obtained.

“Nothing we’ve been given looks like it’s from hacked emails – there are no screenshots of people’s private conversations, just hunt-related documents, spreadsheets, red books, subscriber lists,” he said. “Any allegation that what we have put out has been illegally obtained is just that – an allegation – and we do not recognise that allegation at all.”

Goldman added that the collection of information on anti-hunting activists could have serious consequences.

“West Midlands hunt saboteurs…recently had someone come to their home and pour petrol through their letterbox,” he said. “Elsewhere this season, a house was attacked that used to be occupied by hunt sabs [saboteurs] and is now occupied by a retired couple – a number of their windows were smashed.”

Lee Moon, a spokesperson for the Hunt Saboteurs Association, said the impact on individuals named in the report “can be life changing”.

“Sabs have had their homes damaged, vehicles set on fire and dead foxes left on their doorsteps. The number of sab vehicles stolen from outside our properties has also always seemed unusually high,” he said.

“The Hunt Saboteurs Association are grateful to Hunting Leaks for bringing this matter to the public’s attention, and we look forward to a full and thorough investigation by the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office].”

Second leaked document

A second leaked document – a saboteur update from September 2019 that was also passed on to Hunting Leaks – suggests the CA holds a central database with further information about anti-hunting activists.

The document suggests the CA said it had created a dedicated database to hold relevant information on hunt saboteurs, which will be collected by hunt members and teams of evidence gatherers.

It suggested that, without this evidence, the CA’s lobbying, media and social media functions cannot be used to full effect against hunt saboteurs, and that the CA and HO were in agreement that the failure to collect such data has been the primary barrier to dealing with anti-hunting opposition.

It further claimed that data collected in the database is for a different purpose to the basic data that has long been collected and distributed on hunting days, which it said was solely for assisting hunt masters in deciding how to conduct their day’s activity.

It is currently unclear if this is referring to information collated in the leaked monthly report or something else, and what the exact relationship is between those reports and the central database.

The CA said it does not have a “systematic database of animal rights activists”.

“[As that document states], data held by the alliance is mainly photographs and videos of incidents and activity that has taken place at hunts or hunt property, together with supporting material from social media, that could lead to criminal prosecution for violence, public order, harassment or other offences,” a CA spokesperson said.

“The alliance does not hold a systematic database of animal rights activists, it does not hold sensitive personal information on such people, and it only shares relevant information with law enforcement bodies.”

The CA declined to say how many anti-hunting activists’ personal information it was holding.

Goldman noted that because 30 activists were already in the monthly report from November 2020, the database could contain information on hundreds of people.

“The CA database has been known about, or at least guessed, for some years,” he said. “There are a number of individuals in hunts across the country who are very overtly taking lots of pictures…The confirmation for us came in the past few weeks when we were passed on the CA document outlining the central database.”

The Countryside Alliance pointed out that another anti-hunt organisation, the League Against Cruel Sports, also gathers personal information “in relation to individuals that we investigate for animal cruelty in the name of ‘sport’ and in support of our campaigns”, as stated in the LACS privacy policy.

Hunting Leaks has denied any connection to the LACS.

Data sharing arrangement with counter-terror police

The leaked document also suggested that the new system had been promising so far, and that the CA is working with the Counter Terror Policing – National Operations Centre (CTP-NOC) after agreeing an information-sharing protocol to pass on data about extremist activity. It added that targeting ringleaders was a main priority.

A Counter Terror Policing spokesperson said that, prior to April 2020, it was the responsibility of the CTP-NOC “to gather and assess information in relation to protest groups on behalf of UK policing nationally, primarily to ensure they did not pose a security threat, but also to help forces facilitate lawful protest and prevent criminal activity.

“Since April 2020, the responsibility for gathering such information was handed to the National Police Operations Centre [NPoCC], allowing CTP-NOC to focus on keeping the country safe from terrorism,” it added.

The NPoCC was sent questions about the information-sharing protocol – including the nature of how it works, whether any action has been taken against anti-hunting activists as a result of the agreement, and why they are of interest to counter-terror police – but did not respond by time of publication. It is unclear when this agreement was made.

Kevin Blowe, a coordinator at the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), told Computer Weekly: “We don’t yet know for certain whether there is a formal information-sharing protocol between the Countryside Alliance and Counter-Terrorism Policing.”

Netpol has submitted a freedom of information request to the Metropolitan Police, which leads on counter-terrorism, seeking clarification.

“We do know, however, that the Countryside Alliance has a vested interest in portraying hunt saboteurs in the worst possible light because it is largely evidence gathered by the alliance’s opponents that puts pressure on extremely reluctant police forces to act on persistent breaches of the Hunting Act,” said Blowe.

“Perhaps because of the number of formerly very senior retired police officers involved in ‘field sports’ organisations and the power and influence of local landowners, we know that the police are deeply suspicious of hunt sabs.

“We have monitored this for a number of years and heard about the misuse of police stop and search powers intended for finding offensive weapons, wrongful arrests, the use of police drones and indifference by officers towards threats of violence. This all seems designed to actively frustrate efforts to investigate illegal fox hunting.”

Counter Terror Policing’s interest in anti-hunting activists

Goldman claimed that counter-terror police have been historically motivated to investigate the animal rights movement – something that has continued to the present day.

On 10 January 2020, the Guardian reported on a counter-terrorism police briefing document distributed to medical staff and teachers as part of the government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent programme.

In it, Counter-Terrorism Policing listed a number of groups it viewed as “extremist”, including Extinction Rebellion, Stop the Badger Cull and the Hunt Saboteur Association, alongside fascist groups such as Combat 18 and Generation Identity.

If the relationship between the police and the Countryside Alliance has led to any exchange of information about hunting’s opponents, this is a disturbing example of political policing using sympathetic allies to try to quash dissent
Kevin Blowe, Network for Police Monitoring

“Police forces traditionally have seen hunt saboteurs as the people breaking the law – that should, of course, have changed with the Hunting Act coming into force in 2005,” said Goldman.

“There are certainly far fewer arrests of hunt sabs, but the police are still very much seen by sabs to be in the pocket of the hunts with the high-up connections, rich landowners, judges, high-ranking police officers, etc., all riding with hunts.”

In late November 2020, two secretly recorded Zoom webinars hosted by the HO appear to show some of the UK’s leading hunt personnel, including high-ranking former police officers, discussing how to avoid prosecution for allegedly illegal fox hunting, as well as how to use trail hunting as a “smokescreen” to disguise their activities from authorities. 

ITV later reported the webinars were being investigated by police officers in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service to see if any criminal offences have taken place.

“As was evidenced in the leaked Hunting Office webinars last year, most hunts have spent the past 15 years building up a smokescreen to hide their criminal acts,” said Moon.

“Hunt saboteurs are out there doing the police’s job for them by stopping the hunts, yet week after week we are targeted by police who seem to be in the hunts’ pockets. To find this high-level engagement between the police and the CA at least starts to make sense of the regular police bias we experience out in the fields.”

Blowe added: “If the relationship between the police and the Countryside Alliance has led to any exchange of information about hunting’s opponents, this is a disturbing example of political policing using sympathetic allies to try to quash dissent.”

Goldman said Hunting Leaks’ aim is obtain a public explanation from the CA about why it is holding data on anti-hunting activists and to receive reparations for the victims.

“We plan on doing this by publishing leaked data on hunts that we hold. We are publishing at a rate of about once a week and we will be doing this throughout the spring and summer, or until the CA capitulates,” he said.