“Private security company Vericola’s infiltration exposed
Blog by Tilly Gifford, 3 May 2011
According to its chief executive Rebecca Todd, it is a ‘business risk management company’ offering a ‘bespoke’ service to clients ‘regarding potential threats’ to their businesses.
In what can be called a career-defining blunder in February 2011, Todd accidentally emailed the names of her clients to the Climate Camp for Action. SpinWatch now exposes the reach of her spying network.
Simultaneously to The Guardian releasing the story, Indymedia published the full company details and photos of Rebecca Todd. The campaign groups known to have been targeted by Vericola were listed, as were the email addresses Todd and her agents used. Activist groups were invited to search their databases for these addresses, to gauge if they had been infiltrated, and if so, to what level. The responses came from an alarmingly wide range of groups, testifying to several years of Vericola’s activities between 2006 and 2010.
Email traces of Vericola’s agents have been found in networks working on issues of airport expansion to new coal-fired power stations such as Climate Camp for Action, the Campaign Against Climate Change, London Rising Tide and Art not Oil. They have also been detected in the Campaign Against the Arm Trade and No New Nuclear group.
Here are some examples of the numerous communications from agents of the private security firm presuming to be activists.
Sent: November 28, 2007
Hope your[sic] ok. My bloody cold has lasted for 10 days!!
I won’t be there in person tomorrow as I have to go to a funeral, next door
neighbour, bit of a bastard actually, I have known her for 30 years!! Bless her
though she is having a wicker basket rather than the norm!!!!!
She used to do all the peace marches in the 60’s……
Anyway, I am up for anything……
See you soon
Banal reasons such as funerals or parents evenings used as excuses for being unable to attend protests in person are coupled with the cheery, ‘I’m up for it’, to set the tone of the emails.
Sent: September 10, 2007
How are you? I feel[sic] off the train arriving in charing cross last week and buggered
up my back so I couldn’t make it Thursday or Saturday.
After taking copious amounts of painkillers I am up and about (just) now!!!! I am
gutted I missed Saturday. I can’t make this Thursday as I have a parents evening
thing going on but I am free for anything else.
Please let me know.
The emails from Vericola might not hint at the sleekest of professional spy set-ups, but the repertoire of tactics employed by private security firms is vast. They range from acting as agent provocateur to blacklisting. They can lead to pre-empting and counter-spinning protest, studying the nature of campaigns and how best to resist them. Press releases and programmes can be made ready, softening the impact of the actions. Actions can be sabotaged with tip-offs. Redistributing resources such as security guards can be one outcome of such practices. ‘Internal reports’ about individuals, complete with pictures can be another.
Acting ‘under their own steam’
Scottish Power, E.ON and SRG admitted to hiring Vericola. As commented by Eli Wilton from Climate Camp for Action, ‘the very industries whose environmental and social impacts we oppose are delegating their dirty work to private security firms’.
Responding to The Guardian Todd’s lawyers denied she conducted corporate spying or ‘infiltration’. They stated instead that she gathers information from publicly available sources such as mailing lists or open websites. ‘Our client has not obtained any confidential information nor has she been guilty of any dishonesty,’ they said.
However, from the activists’ investigations it appears Todd and her agents were attending meetings and were signed up to many activist lists. Some of these lists were indeed for newsletters. But others were for internal strategy discussion. Yoshka Pundrik from the Climate Camp for Action, who was responsible for adding email addresses to the lists, said ‘They couldn’t have gotten subscribed without attending our meetings. These were internal lists where, for example, we strategised about how to stop new coal-fired power stations being built by E.ON.’
An email from Becki using the address firstname.lastname@example.org to an anti-aviation group ends: ‘And yes will [sic] be up for direct action and so yes please ask someone to put me on the list. Cheers’.
In other correspondences Becki offers to send the outreach emails to the network – presumably volunteering herself for the mundane task as it would provide access to databases.
Responding to The Guardian, E.ON said it had hired Vericola and Global Open on an ad hoc basis and only for publicly available information. The spokesman added that if Todd and her colleagues had obtained private information, they had done so ‘under their own steam’.
A constant, low-lying threat
And that’s it? ‘No Comment’. End of story? Funded and commissioned by the energy giants, activist groups have been infiltrated, trust betrayed and campaign work potentially undermined. There is a private security industry out there, Global Open, C2i and Vericola being but a few. Hiring a private security firm allows corporations to enjoy a certain distance and a distinct lack of accountability. They can claim innocence, feign ignorance and decline further comment.
It might be some consolation that Vericola’s professional services are now unlikely to be sought after. However, there is a deliberate reason for exposing Rebecca Todd, CEO of the company, by posting her name, photos and tracing her career. There is a reoccurring pattern of security firms who fall into disrepute folding shop and re-surfacing under a new name. So take a mental note of Rebecca Todd’s face. Assure that basic measures are in place for your group’s security. Shake-off any paranoid tendencies and instead bear in mind that corporate intelligence-gathering will continue to be a constant, low-lying, threat to activist campaigns.