The war on fracking’s frontlines has gone full Cyber.
Fracking companies INEOS, UK Oil and Gas (UKOG), and Europa Oil and Gas are all in the process of trying to obtain injunctions to restrict protest. An investigation published on Vice Motherboard, in cooperation with DeSmog UK, shows that to support their case, the companies have deployed a specialist security team to conduct, among other things, mass social media surveillance.
A trawl through hundreds of pages of surveillance by DeSmog UK shows many of the posts they submit to the court are of either totally legal, or totally unrelated, activity. This surveillance is being used in court cases to argue for further restrictions on the protestors. DeSmog UK has identified a number of cases where a private group appears to have been infiltrated by the security firm, with posts from that group submitted as evidence to the court.
On top of this, the company charged with carrying out the surveillance, Eclipse Strategic Security, appears to have once been indirectly owned by INEOS - one of the fracking companies taking out an injunction, and for which it is conducting surveillance. Eclipse's net assets have increased17-fold over the last two years as fracking protests blossomed around the UK, Companies House documents show.
Further investigation by DeSmog UK found Eclipse employees publicly support far-right groups, have privileged access to the UK’s police, and have links to Big Oil companies and security firms embroiled in human rights scandals in the Middle East.
This DeSmog UK and Vice Motherboard investigation raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the evidence being submitted to the court, and the role of Facebook in facilitating crack-downs on legitimate forms of democratic protest. Here is the key information and documents behind the investigation:
- The Injunctions
- The Context: Facebook and Data Privacy
- The Surveillance Company: Eclipse Strategic Security
- Protestor Reaction
- Facebook Group Responses
- Company Responses
- Key Documents
Read the full story on Vice Motherboard
A number of shale gas companies are seeking injunctions against ‘persons unknown’ to try and pre-empt protests against their activity.
INEOS: The company originally won a temporary injunction to restrict campaign activity at all its shale gas sites in England in July 2017. In November 2017, the injunction was extended. In February 2018, campaigners secured the right to appeal the decision. The date of the appeal hearing is yet to be confirmed.
UK Oil and Gas: The company originally applied for an injunction for its sites across Surrey and Sussex in March 2018. In April 2018, it dropped the most “draconian” clause in the injunction that sought to restrict some lawful protest activity. The company says it has narrowed the scope of the injunction to specifically target unlawful activity. After being challenged by campaigners, the judge adjourned proceedings for ‘about six weeks’. The injunction hearing took place in early July 2018.
Europa Oil and Gas: The company had its injunction relating to the Leith Hill site granted in 2017, and secured an extension of the injunction in January 2018. The injunction is due to expire in September 2018, when Europa’s lease of the site also ends.
Cuadrilla Resources: The company currently has an injunction for its Preston New Road site in Lancashire. It originally secured the injunction in March 2014, which was due to expire in August 2018. In June 2018, a judge granted a temporary extension before the company applies for a full extension that would last until 2020. Campaigners are due to challenge the injunction at a hearing on 10 July 2018.
Facebook has been embroiled in scandal for months, ever since The Observer alleged political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had illegitimately obtained and used data from people’s profiles to help campaign for Brexit.
Further investigation revealed Cambridge Analytica’s ties to a network of libertarian ideologues and climate science deniers on both sides of the Atlantic. Motherboard also revealed the company’s ties to the fossil fuel industry, mapped by DeSmog UK.
Cambridge Analytica denies any wrongdoing, and Facebook maintains that it did not know about how the data was obtained and used.
The use of Facebook surveillance to try to restrict environmental protest adds a fresh twist to the saga over how private data is now being used by private companies for political means.
Eclipse Strategic Security conducts the surveillance for INEOS, UKOG and Europa.
Companies House records show Eclipse’s income increased 10-fold between 2016 and 2017, the year in which the fracking companies sought injunctions. One of Eclipse’s five investors was a company called Rocksavage. Rocksavage International is a chemical manufacturer owned by INEOS.
Through its director, Eclipse has strong ties to the police, military, Big Oil, and fracking companies themselves.
Fellows previously worked for a company that delivered training ‘on safety and security’ for BP, Shell, ExxonMobil.
In 2017, he attended a joint meeting with trade association UK Onshore Oil and Gas, the National Police Coordination Centre and the UK’s Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit to address concerns about the risks posed by “militant activists”.
Matthews worked as a Consultant for Aegis Defence Services between 2010 and 2011. Aegis is a private military and security company that operated in Iraq under a contract with US Department of Defence.
In 2005, it was mired in a scandal following the publishing of “trophy” videos online showing private military contractors firing indiscriminately at civilian vehicles. Aegis denies wrongdoing.
Andrew James Court
Court has a military background. His Facebook profile picture appears to be him firing a sniper rifle.
On his publicly accessible Facebook page, he regularly shares content from far-right groups, including Crusader Operator and Infidels of Britain. Crusader Operator sells “prepper” and survivalist clothing. The ‘About Us’ section on its Facebook reads:
“Two towers fell, subways attacked and the modern day Crusades were launched. Crusader Operators are the modern day Crusaders who battle the Jihadi extremists that wish to force their rule upon the world. We are the ones who stand up for the weak and oppressed who cannot defend themselves. Everyone behind this company has spent years getting shot at in the name of Allah by the extremists. We have first hand experience at the horrors of Sharia law.”
Infidels of Britain are a far-right group that are self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and aligned with the EDL, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.
DeSmog UK contacted some of the campaigners that were most heavily surveilled, to ask them how it made them feel to know companies were turning their words back on them.
Danny Vc Llew, Environmental Protector
He told DeSmog UK that knowing his Facebook activity was being used to support the companies’ cases made him feel “dirty” and “violated”.
“It’s basically private companies creating a surveillance state”, he said.
“My grandfather served in both world wars and it’s not the country he would have wanted to see. He was trying to defend from fascism, from corporatocracy, from people invading and forcing their will upon others. And that’s exactly what we’ve got going on here”.
Jon O’Houston, Broadford Bridge Protection Camp
He said he felt it was equivalent to the phone hacking cases, which led to the Leveson review.
“What’s said in the groups is generally taken either out of context or cherry-picked.”
“When taken out of context, you can make anything look bad or good.”
“I don’t think I’d ever change the way we operate our groups. There’s too much information there already. If someone wants to go back five years and have a look at what was going on in these groups five years ago, they could do that”, he said.
“It would be very difficult if we stopped using Facebook as a platform. We would lose so much of that important stuff. In a way, it’s got us trapped.”
DeSmog UK also contacted the administrators of the main Facebook groups included in the surveillance, to ask how outsiders could have gained access, and whether they knew they were being surveilled.
Lucy Barford, A Voice for Leith Hill
For her, the main regret was failing to alert members that participating in the groups could provide useful leads for companies seeking to make a case:
“I now feel angry and regretful that lovely and entirely law-abiding members of our local community who joined the group weren’t more strongly encouraged to set up alternate anonymous Facebook accounts so their privacy wasn’t invaded by the unpleasant people who conducted the monitoring.”
Frack Free Sussex, Anonymous Administrators
One administrator called the surveillance “creepy”:
“For the industry to pay security and surveillance services to go through our pages, groups and timelines can have a chilling effect with some. We try not to let it affect us.”
Another was shocked that a small company like UKOG “could afford it or was bothering.”
They said they may tone down their messages on Facebook in the wake of seeing how they were used in the injunction hearings, but none suggested they would stop using Facebook altogether, with one admitting, “I loathe it, yet remain on Facebook feeding them”.
But one administrator said they knew they were being surveilled on the group, and sometimes used that to send messages to the company:
“If the investors are talking about what we post, then surely the industry is. And what can we do about it? Some posts we make are not only aimed with an ask of our audience (ie follow-up on breaches) but as we aware that the industry are observing, to ensure they know we are watching them.”
Stephen Hall, Balcombe and Beyond
For some, there was a feeling that they had nothing to hide, so they were open on Facebook even when they suspected the companies were watching:
“There are so many anti fracking Facebook groups around the UK that it was taken for granted that pro-fracking elements would join the Facebook groups as we actively canvassed for local support. Our mindset was we have nothing to hide when all we are attempting to do is save our environment.”
Paul Ask, Leith Hill Protection Camp
For him, the main concern was that the surveillance felt like an invasion of privacy:
“Most people are aware groups are monitored by people not who they claim to be. It does matter to me, it's a privacy issue and we are doing nothing wrong.
I did not know screenshots were being taken to be used in court. I am unhappy about this, I feel spied on, I take a fair bit of effort to keep my online presence private.”
Eclipse Strategic Security did not comment for the Vice Motherboard article but did respond to an email about the Facebook profile of one of its directors, which showed personal support for far-right groups including the Infidels of Britain which advocates for a white British state and is “opposed to multiculturalism.” An HR manager for Eclipse said that an internal investigation would be conducted into “the veracity of the allegations” which are viewed “in a very serious light.”
INEOS declined to comment on the Vice Motherboard story. UKOG, Europa and Rocksavage International did not respond to requests for comment.
Here are the key documents showing the fracking companies' surveillance of anti-fracking protestors:
Read the full story on Vice Motherboard
Image: Composite by DeSmog UK CC.0