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Anti-vivisection campaigners employ spies against students

A national anti-animal testing organisation has infiltrated The University of Edinburgh medical research department and is actively paying students to spy on research practices and obtain the personal details of their peers, The Student has learned.

The group, National Organisation Anti-Vivisection (NOAV), has employed a network of Edinburgh students in the past months to covertly supply information on students engaging in live animal testing, also known as vivisection, interviews reveal.

Such information includes names, photos, phone numbers, email addresses, and postal addresses of students involved in the research.  The contact details obtained are stored by the organisation and used to apply direct pressure on the individuals to stop their research.  In some cases, identities of researchers are released to the public, a process the group refers as “naming and shaming”.

Students who participate have been paid between £50 to £1000 for their efforts.

Details of the current operation at the University of Edinburgh came to light in recent interviews with NOAV representatives by The Student.

The group claims to currently employ five Edinburgh ‘spies’ that provide them information “on a regular basis”.  They’ve additionally employed a number of individuals that have provided “‘one off’ type tip-offs.”

Their intentions are “to build up a network of spies able to collect and pass on information about animal testing,” a spokesman for the group told The Student.

The efforts are part of a controversial UK-wide campaign by NOAV to entice student involvement by promising ‘beer money’.  The scheme, first launched on campus at Cambridge University last autumn, has now been extended to universities across the country through online advertisements.

“NOAV is willing to pay £££ for info about students doing experiments on animals in your Uni as part of their academic program!,” a line on their website reads.

But while the group has been soliciting espionage online for months, they have not directly acknowledged an active campaign at the University of Edinburgh until now.

“We are getting good information from Edinburgh at this time,” NOAV spokesman William Evans told The Student.

He declined to provide further details, adding that releasing information at this stage “would compromise operations.”

As NOAV receives information from student sources— all of whom it says have approached it voluntarily— it also assesses the informants’ skills and tests them.  Those that demonstrate “the ability to gather relevant information” are retained and offered future data collection tasks, the organisation told The Student.

In addition to the information on lab practices, the organisation uses the contact information it receives to directly contact researchers and attempt to convince them to abandon their practices.  The group described this operation to The Student as “a single polite contact with those concerned.”

The group will also occasionally publish names and photos of researchers to encourage social pressure to change their behaviour, although it claims it has yet to do so at Edinburgh for strategic purposes.

In reference to the practices, a statement on their website claims: “Those that abuse animals for a living don’t want others to know what they do, many are to [sic] ashamed to even tell their children how they make their blood money. We do not believe they should be given the cover of anonymity.”

Elsewhere, the website states: “Students should be…given a taste of the peaceful protests and public pressure they are going to experience for the rest of their lives should they pick animal abuse as a career.”

A spokesman for NOAV declined to detail a specific timeframe for operations at Edinburgh, nor any specifics on the payments it has handed out so far.  Payments are generally made in cash, and are often anonymous. 

The organisation’s actions have come under criticism both within and beyond the University.

Professor Margaret Frame, Director of Research at the University of Edinburgh, called it “an extremely unpleasant campaign.”

“I do not think these are acceptable approaches to students,” she told The Student.

Ghazaleh Mohammadi-Zaniani, fourth year medicine student, condemned the efforts, telling The Student: “What that society is doing is deplorable.  Sadly expected though.”

“I don’t think this campaign is entirely fair,” fourth year veterinarian student Lisa-Ann Ying told The Student.

“Students who are known to carry out this research should have their work more carefully analysed in detail to ensure and confirm that yes they probably have crossed ethical guidelines,” she added, contrasting that method  with what she saw as an indiscriminate approach taken by the activist group.

Other anti-vivisectionist organisations have distanced themselves from NOAV’s strategies. 

Speaking to The Student, Martin Mallon, Media Officer for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) said: “As much as we deplore the use of animals in research and testing and advocate transparency, the BUAV does not approve of these tactics to acquire information, nor the act of naming and shaming individual researchers involved.”

William Evans of NOAV defended its techniques, telling the The Student: “The aim is to persuade researchers to choose projects that do not involve animals.

“If people are proud of experimenting on animals they will be pleased to have their names linked to it.”

The organisation has stressed that it is acting within the law, and implores its activists to do so on its website.  An analysis by The Student of the Data Protection Act 1998 affirmed that NOAV appears to be acting within its rights as a data processor under the statute.

However, the analysis also revealed that such collection may be subject to legal challenge under section 10 of the act if the data is likely to provide unwarranted distress to the individual.  The success of such a challenge would hinge on the severity of the distress to the individual and the existence of a public interest on behalf of the organisation.

NOAV representatives could not be reached for specific questions on the Data Protection Act by the time The Student went to press.

But regarding the legality of their actions generally, a spokesman told The Student: “there is nothing unlawful in collecting information about the use of animals in experiments and publishing when this is in the public interest. Our actions are no different to a newspaper or other media outlet.”

The University says it has taken notice of the campaign and developed its own mechanisms for complaints. 

A university spokesperson told The Student: “Further information has been circulated to personal tutors and student support teams in relevant Schools. Any student who feels affected by this should contact their School who will be able to discuss their concerns directly.”

Police Scotland have also been monitoring the campaign.  They advised students with concerns of harassment to contact them on 101, and pledged that they “would investigate any complaint that was made to us.”

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