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Time for surveillance transparency

Today the three heads of Britain's intelligence agencies appear infront of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee in a televised hearing, the first time for such a hearing to be broadcast. Progress, yes, but let's not get ahead of ourselves - the head of the CIA first appeared on TV speaking to congress in 1975, so it's hardly a revolution in oversight. Today we have published new polling by

GCHQ faces legal action over mass surveillance

Today Big Brother Watch, working with the Open Rights Group, English PEN and German internet activist Constanze Kurz, has announced legal papers have been filed alleging that GCHQ has illegally intruded on the privacy of millions of British and European citizens. We allege that by collecting vast amounts of data leaving or entering the UK, including the content of emails and social media messages, the UK’s spy

Patients win choice of sharing medical records

Earlier this year, we led the concern that a new NHS data sharing plan would see every patient's medical records uploaded to a new information system without the right to opt-out. We warned at the time that patient records would be out of patient control. On Friday, the Secretary of State confirmed that this will not be the case. We have worked closely with MedConfidential and Privacy International to ensure

Boom in private investigators risks avoiding surveillance regulation

Our latest report highlights the growing use of private investigators by local and public authorities, particularly the number of times they are used without RIPA authorisation. The law in the UK, particularly the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, is broadly drawn to allow evidence to be introduced in court that in other jurisdictions would not be deemed admissible. Contrasted with the fruit of the poisonous

HASC concludes that surveillance legislation is “not fit for purpose”.

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 2 Comments

The Home Affairs Select Committee has published a report today into the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, concluding that the legislation “is not fit for purpose” and “needs a complete overhaul”.

Big Brother Watch has published a briefing on RIPA, which can be accessed here (PDF).

Our director, Emma Carr, talked to BBC News about the report.

BBC News Emma Carr HASC RIPA Report from BigBrotherWatch on Vimeo.

Key conclusions:

S94 Telecommunications Act

  • There is no public disclosure of how this is used, and none of our witnesses has been aware of anyone who considers it their role to scrutinse it or have any oversight powers. We believe this should be reviewed, and one of the Commissioners specifically tasked with oversight of this power, for them to be given the information and access needed to fulfill this role.
  • We recommend that the Government published the number of times this power is used on an annual basis.
  • We further suggest that the Intelligence and Security Committee conduct an inquiry into the use of this power.

Transparency and record keeping

  • “The Committee acknowledges the operational need for secrecy both during investigations and afterwards. However, there has to be proper oversight and scrutiny. The Committee recommends that the Home Office use the current review of the RIPA Code to ensure that law enforcement agencies use their RIPA powers properly.”
  • RIPA is not fit for purpose, with law enforcement agecnies failing to routinely record the professions of individuals who have had their communications data accessed under RIPA. The recording of this information is totally insufficient, and the whole process appears secretive and disorganised with information being destroyed afterwards.

Effective oversight

  • All police forces must communicate openly and effectively with the IOCCO regarding the information they give him about their work.
  • The IOCCO should be given further resources to carry out its job

Updated code of practice

  • The communications data code of practice contains no advice on dealing with the professions that handle privileged information, nor on the use of confidential helplines.
  • There is “vital” that there is better statistical requirements in the code of practice.
  • The Government had stated that there would be a revised code in draft “in autumn” which would be open to public consultation. With only 26 days until the new year, the Home Office has failed to meet its own timetable.

Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “When a senior Parliamentary Committee says that the current legislation is not fit for purpose, then this simply cannot be ignored. It is now abundantly clear that the law is out of date, the oversight is weak and the recording of how the powers  are used is patchy at best. The public is right to expect better.

“The conclusion of the Committee that the level of secrecy surrounding the use of these powers is permitting investigations that are deemed ”unacceptable in a democracy”, should make the defenders of these powers sit up and take notice. At present, the inadequacy and inconsistency of the records being kept by public authorities regarding the use of these powers is woefully inadequate. New laws would not be required to correct this.

“Whilst this report concentrates on targeting journalists, it is important to remember  that thousands of members of the public have been also been snooped on, with little opportunity for redress.  If the police fail to use the existing powers correctly then it is completely irresponsible for the Home Office to be planning on increasing those powers.

“Failure by the Government to address these serious points means we can already know that there will be many more innocent members of the public who will be wrongly spied on and accused. This is intolerable.”

Briefing Note: Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Research and reports, RIPA | 1 Comment

We have produced a briefing document on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), the main surveillance legislation that is used by public authorities, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies. The briefing can be accessed here.


RIPA governs the use of covert surveillance powers. In 2012 the Protection of Freedoms Act was introduced, partly to solve some of the issues created by the legislation, such as the use of intrusive surveillance for minor issues. Many problems still remain and the need to enact serious reform is now more pressing than ever.


  1. RIPA was drafted for a pre-social media age, it is now woefully outdated.
  2. More transparency is needed around how RIPA powers are used, including the way that authorisations to use the powers are approved.
  3. RIPA’s oversight mechanisms are in need of reform.
  4. Members of the public should be able to seek redress if they have been subject to surveillance.

Big Brother Watch supports campaign to limit pre-charge bail to 28 days

Posted on by Renate Samson Posted in Civil Liberties, Home | 1 Comment

5946829399_e633991652_oBig Brother Watch has added its support to a campaign calling for pre-charge bail to be limited to 28 days.

The law was introduced as part of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and was strengthened to include conditions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.   It was designed to ensure that people suspected of a crime didn’t linger in prison cells whilst the police conducted their enquiries.  With no statutory time limit in place, people can be held on bail for months, and in some cases even years.

Research indicates that an estimated 70,000 people are currently living under pre-charge bail conditions, 5,000 of which have been subject to the control for over six months.

Whilst it is necessary for the police to have the required time to investigate crime and determine whether an individual should be charged or not, the current situation is not acceptable to the police or to the individual.  Establishing a clear time frame of 28 days will give clarification to all parties.  Should there be a need for further investigation any extension should be fully transparent and subject to judicial review.

Living in limbo with no indication as to when a charge may or may not be brought is a form of punishment in itself.  The impact on a person’s day to day life, health and mental wellbeing is profound. Your life is simply put on hold with no right to appeal.

Big Brother Watch Advent Calendar

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | Leave a comment

Every day in December we will be opening the BBW advent calendar, which includes practical tips to keep your devices and profiles safe online.

December 10 Read more

No Halt to the Sharing of Medical Records

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Data Protection, Databases, NHS | 3 Comments

iStock_000016822421MediumDespite uncovering thousands of cases of patient information being wrongly disclosed to third parties a recent review into the sharing of medical records with private sector companies endorses the practice.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the review, conducted by Sir Nick Partridge found that “tens of thousands of records were wrongly passed to third parties”. However Sir Nick argued that the proper checks and balances were now in place.

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the NHS’ ability to keep patient data secure. Earlier this month Big Brother Watch published NHS Data Breaches, a report into the subject (PDF). It found that data security is an ongoing problem, over the last four years patient confidentiality had been breached at least 7,255 times.

The major issue to be resolved is the level of deterrent the Data Protection Act 1998 poses to individuals who are intent on breaking its provisions. Currently the courts can only hand down a fine to those guilty of maliciously breaching the terms of the Act.

Read more

Counter Terrorism and Security Bill

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 4 Comments

commons dayThe Counter Terrorism and Security Bill is due to be published today, making it the seventh major counter terrorism law introduced in Britain since 9/11. The Bill can be accessed here.

Although we are still waiting to see the detail of the Bill, there are three Big Brother Watch briefing notes which are relevant: TPIMs, IP address matching, and the capability gap.

A brief analysis of what the Bill will include:

  • Barring returning terrorists

Temporary exclusion orders will be introduced to control the return of British citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activity abroad.This will result in the cancellation of travel documents and inclusion of the individual’s details on British border “watch lists”, which could include a no-fly list.

It is this proposal that has seemingly received the most backlash from politicians, with concerns about its legality and practicality.

  • Fighting campus extremism

Colleges, schools, prisons, probation providers, police and councils will face a statutory  duty to “prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism”.

Many educational establishments have had a policy for several years of denying a platform to ‘extremist’ speakers. However this has not been an easy policy to implement, largely due to the nature of defining ‘extremist’.

Read more

BRIEFING NOTE: Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and IP address matching

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Research and reports | 1 Comment

commons dayThe Government has announced that it will bring forward proposals to enable IP address matching. The measures would require internet firms to keep records of customer information, to enable law enforcement bodies to decipher who was using a device, such as a smart phone or computer, at a given time.

We have produced a briefing note (PDF) on the proposals.

The key issues with the proposals are:

  • There are questions over whether or not this will be technically feasible.
  • Proper safeguards must be introduced to ensure that these techniques are used transparently, that there is a proper level of authorisation and that the oversight and redress mechanisms can function effectively.
  • If this measure is introduced, time should be allowed to ensure that its effectiveness to law enforcements investigations can be evaluated with due care and transparency.

Home Secretary announces plans to introduce IP address matching powers

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 15 Comments

Theresa MayWhen the Communications Data Bill was scrapped in 2013, one of the issues that appeared to have full political consensus was the ‘resolution of IP addresses’ – particularly where mobile phone operators may have millions of customers using just a few hundred IP addresses.

In the simplest of terms, an IP address is the address you access the internet through (although ways of masking this are nothing new nor particularly technically challenging). The Home Secretary has announced her intention to include measures to tackle this in the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill.

It is perfectly reasonable that powers to provide the police with the ability to match an IP address to the person using that service is investigated. However, if such a power is required, then it should be subject to the widespread consultation and comprehensive scrutiny that has been sorely lacking to date with industry, civil society and the wider public when it comes to introducing new surveillance powers. It is important to also recognise that the Communications Data Bill went far, far beyond being a focused attempt to solve this problem.

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Who’s watching your webcam?

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 3 Comments

Image3The Daily Mail has revealed that people could be being watched in their own homes or at work as hackers are targeting webcams and uploading the live footage to the internet. The warning comes from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is urging people to upgrade their passwords from the default setting.

Very few people would leave their front doors unlocked, yet failing to password protect your devices carries the same risks to both their privacy and security. As the capability of these devices becomes increasingly sophisticated, it is inevitable that users will inadvertently expose themselves and their lives to hackers.

It has been reported that a Russian website is featuring live feeds from the UK, including a gym in Manchester, a bedroom in Birmingham, and an office in Leicester. In light of the 350,000 estimated cameras that were sold in the UK in 2013, the number of vulnerable cameras could be in their tens of thousands.

Read more

The Capability Gap

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Research and reports | Leave a comment

serversWith the concept of a ‘capability gap’ in the acquisition of communications data being increasingly discussed, we have created a briefing on the key issues and definitions of the issue which can be viewed here (PDF).

The purpose of the briefing is to demonstrate that using the concept as an argument for the introduction of mass communications data collection is fundamentally flawed and unhelpful to what is a serious debate.

The key areas covered in the briefing are:

  • The definition of the capability gap
  • Key issues with the capability gap
  • The Interception of Communicatiions Commissioner’s Report
  • Resolving the capability gap
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