City Hall faces questions over contract with spy firm gathering intelligence on protests

Barney Davis
·3-min read
<p>A police officer tries to stop an activist spraying graffiti on a wall during a XR demonstration against the HS2 rail line outside the Department for Transport, </p> (AFP via Getty Images)

A police officer tries to stop an activist spraying graffiti on a wall during a XR demonstration against the HS2 rail line outside the Department for Transport,

(AFP via Getty Images)

City Hall is facing questions over its decision to hire a private spy firm to monitor upcoming protests across the capital.

Welund, a company that identifies “politically-based threats” to its clients, is currently providing intelligence to the Mayor of London’s operations unit so they can plan ahead and tackle demonstrations that aim to disrupt London.

The £12,000, year-long contract was revealed by climate-focused investigative news outlet DeSmog. It was signed months after climate activist group Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) two-week autumn protests resulted in 1,828 arrests, costing the Metropolitan Police £37m.

City Hall defended Welund, which has worked for big fossil fuel companies in the past, and said it is not been told to gather information on one specific group.

Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member, Caroline Pidgeon, said: "This is a contract that should not have been awarded without open competition and far more debate.”

“Plenty of information has for a long time been collected by the police about the activities of environmental campaigners.

“To now discover that the Mayor wants a separate and additional form of intelligence gathering raises a whole range of questions.”

According to a 2018 Mother Jones investigation, Welund was founded in 2007 by a former MI6 special agent. The company’s LinkedIn page bills itself as a “market-leader in monitoring and identifying politically-based threats to businesses."

The company analyses threats posed by activists and offers a subscriber-only intelligence platform that holds a “live archive” of mostly open source data.

Welund has previously worked with fossil fuel companies such as Shell and Chevron, and provided intelligence on a number of social movements and campaign groups including Greenpeace and Occupy Wall Street.

The company’s Twitter account highlights protests by Extinction Rebellion and others, accompanied by links to the company’s paywalled platform.

Welund has traditionally kept a low profile. Even its name, which is derived from Norse mythology, is little known beyond a small subset of industry and government contractors.

The firm’s vice president of operations, Travis Moran, is a former US Justice Department special agent who previously worked as a senior counterterrorism investigator at Dominion Energy, one of the largest suppliers of electricity and natural gas in the United States.

“What we’re talking about here is an existential threat,” Moran was reported as telling an audience of oil and gas executives of the environmental movement at a conference in Houston, Texas.

City Hall explained the contract with Welund signed on March 17 by saying: “Although many groups and movements who wish to protest do so lawfully including in providing appropriate notice under the applicable public order legislation, a significant proportion do not and the GLA does not have advanced warning of such activities.

“Obtaining information on planned demonstrations, particularly when disruption to London is the stated intent, would allow City Ops to support the Mayor in his strategic role as well as the operations of its functional bodies for which the GLA has a facilitative and coordinating role.”

A spokesperson for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan defended the decision to hire Welund, saying it was “vital that the Mayor has the most accurate, current information at his disposal” to keep Londoners informed.

They continued: “Welund have not been engaged to report on any specific group, theme or cause, but rather to assist in providing information on planned and unplanned protests, in order to keep the Mayor and key stakeholders informed.

“The information provided by Welund enables the Mayor to communicate with Londoners in relation to protests, events and demonstrations, and to facilitate and coordinate the work of functional bodies as appropriate.”

Welund has been approached repeatedly by The Standard in collaboration with DeSmog.

Read More

XR: Latest protests prove movement is mobilising across society