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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


Cobbled streets: another British traditional bites the dust

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Images Hanging baskets, wrought-iron railings, timber-framed Tudor homes resting alongside thatched cottages, cobbled streets…  A more picture-perfect image of the old England it is hard to imagine.

Except, of course, if you're a member of the loftily-named Dunster Working Group made up of officials from "Somerset County Council, the local parish council, the Highways Agency, the National Trust and the Exmoor National Park Authority".

It seems, after hundreds of years, the working group has deemed the medieval cobbled streets of Dunster "unsafe" and has recommended replacing the traditional street-scene with a smooth pavement.

Commenting on the decision, Working Group Chairman Paul Toogood said:

"In an ideal world we would like to lift the cobbles and lay them again, but we have to think about litigation; if someone falls over we could be sued.  The cobbles on the one side of the street are dangerous, extremely dangerous"

Another traditional bites the dust, then – all in the name of health and safety.

Clear here for the full story.

By Daniel Hamilton.

Online Comments and Court Trials

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Hammer Speaking to the Criminal Bar Association last week, Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP said that protecting the fairness of trials was becoming increasingly more difficult with rise in online media and blogging.  He went on to say that website owners should be responsible for posts and comments and he hopes to have ‘further discussions’ owners’ liability.

It is common for parties involved in publishing material relating to a current or upcoming trial to escape from the issue of liability under the argument that they innocently passed on materials. Distributors of said material can claim that they were unaware of that the material was information in a trial. Site owners could claim the same thing for comments made on their website on until they are made aware of a connection to a trial.

Though the proliferation of online publishing and distribution will continue to be an issue, Dominic Grieve went on to say the following in his comments:

"Does the system presently work? In blunt terms and with doubtless imperfections, in my view, it does. Although my office receives a substantial number of queries from legal representatives, the courts, the judiciary, members of the public and also members of the press there have been a comparatively small number of prosecutions under either the 1981 [Contempt of Court] Act or for breaches of other specific restrictions."

Issues of censorship, privacy, and multi-channel information distribution will no doubt shape this debate as it continues to become a bigger issue. For now we will wait and see.

By Dominique Lazanski

Information Commissioner rules against healthcare firm

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Ico The Information Commissioner has upheld a complaint against a city-based healthcare recruitment firm for a breach of the Data Protection Act which saw the personal details of scores of doctors sold on an internet auction website.

Healthcare Locums, the Information Commissioner said, failed to ensure that hard drives containing sensitive information regarding the home addresses and immigration status of individual doctors was properly logged and recorded during an office move.

The case of Healthcare Locums is sadly not alone with many firms sharing the company's apparently slap-dash attitude to ensuring the safety of data relating to their customers and employees. While the company has, on this occasion, escaped a large fine for their infrigement of the Data Protection Act this case should serve as an example to all firms of the absolute need for solid data protection policies.

A full copy of the Information Commissioner's ruling can be found here.

By Daniel Hamilton

BBC World Service: Alex Deane on the European Investigation Order and Arrest Warrant

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BBC World Service: Alex Deane and Claire Fox discussing the threats to the freedoms of the British people

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School day trip terror risk “severe”

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Warning In the days after the 7/7 bombings it was more common than not to hear Londoners speak in stoic terms about the terrorist atrocities which claimed 52 lives. 

"I'm not going to change anything about the way I go about my life", people would say, "if I did that it would be letting the terrorists win".

Sadly, this spirit of stoicism doesn't appear to have extended to the mandarins at Northamptonshire County Council.

According to the Metro this morning, the parents of 100,000 schoolchildren in the county have received letters from headteachers advising them of the risk of terrorism associated with visting the capital.  London is, the letters explain, at "severe" risk of a terrorist attack.

The scaremongering tactics of Northamptonshire County Council are wholly irresponsible; injecting an element of fear into the traditional school day trip to London and placing an unfair burden of worry on parents.  What kind of a word do we live in when a school day trip to the British Museum or such like comes with a "terrorism warning"?  

By Daniel Hamilton

Hague goes to Russia… what is to be done about the Litvinenko case?

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Litvinenko Britain's Foreign Secretary is in Moscow today on his first visit to Russia.

I am glad to see that the case of Alexander Litvinenko features prominently in the news reports about the trip and sincerely hope that it gets more than a mention in the talks between the officials concerned. As I wrote elsewhere at the time, this seems to be a straightforward case of extra-judicial execution done on the streets of our capital by a foreign power, and it is absurd that things go on as if nothing happened.

The Russian suspected of having done the deed, former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, has been the subject of an extradition request by the Crown Prosecution Service since 2007. It remains unanswered, and Lugovoi appears in the media today to flaunts his contempt for British law, bluntly refusing to contemplate an appearance to answer the allegations against him and – forgive me if one appears incredulous about this – urging Britain to "move on" from the case.

I trust that William Hague will demonstrate that countries which respect the rule of law and defend the lives of their subjects don't just brush such things under the carpet.

By Alex Deane

Volunteering: in the dock

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Scouting The Daily Mail carries news today of the story of a former scout awarded £7,322 damages by a Birmingham court after incurring an injury during a game of 'objects in the dark'.  The scout is said to have suffered shoulder damage after scoutmasters failed to "take reasonable care" to ensure the safety of children under their control.

The specifics of this case aside, such a ruling risks setting a regrettable precedent in which volunteers such as those involved in scouting feel unable to organise activities for young people without the permanent risk of incurring costly and personally embarassing litigation.

The ruling is currently being appealed at the High Court with the Lord Justices set to hand down their opinion at the end of the month.

While guaranteeing the safety of children is paramount, it can surely only be right that our legal system affords adequate protections to volunteers like scoutmasters who are so generously giving of their time to help young people?

An effort was made to address this issue back in 2006 in the form of the Promotion of Volunteering Bill championed by backbench MP Julian Brazier. The bill, which sought to "reduce the effect of litigation to organisations and others engaged in "desirable acts"" such as organising school trips and scouting visits, failed to progress beyond a second reading.

By Daniel Hamilton

The police, guns, the Saunders case

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Police with guns Apologies for two posts about the police on the trot from me, but this is an important issue.

Over at the Daily Mail, Max Hastings has written that

Of course, the police have a tough job. But to shoot dead Mark Saunders like a mad dog was an affront to the values of a decent society

I think I disagree.

Let's remember that Saunders had been ­ firing his shotgun wildly around ­Chelsea’s Markham Square. Police had been on the scene for some time, but he still refused to put down his gun. So – although I have not seen the evidence in any depth, and I may be wrong – I tend to think that the jury got it right when they returned a verdict of lawful killing in this case. I would add to that that I believe in the common sense of jurors, and the jury here had every opportunity to stick it to the police in question, and did not.

On the other hand, I do agree with Hasting when he writes that there is

a new and alarming macho gun culture among Britain’s constabulary.

I just don't think that the Saunders case is a good example of that. If ever there's a time for armed police, I'd think that responding to a man blazing away at his neighbours is it. Much better as an example, I think, is the experience I had this weekend, walking with my wife in the sunny gardens of St Paul's Cathedral – when we came across two hulking cops coming down the path towards us, each lugging a submachine gun.

My point isn't that this is unusual – it's that this is usual. Nothing special was happening this weekend, there was no specific event or exceptional justification – it was just a couple of policemen walking the beat, armed to the nines like Rambo.

I'll lay odds that you've seen something similar lately. It started becoming more usual at airports, and then at specific events, and now we see City of London police toting kit meant for warzones around the gardens at St Paul's, in which perhaps the worst examples of disorder might be a recalcitrant squirrel or two. What next in the standard kit – bazookas?

We're a long way from Robert Peel when this is the norm. Who, faced with this, thinks that "the police are the public, and the public are the police"? It's very hard to feel like we have a citizen constabulary when they are swaddled with hyper-aggressive kit (batons, spray, maglite thumper-torches, tasers, and now machine guns). To my mind it's the normalisation of this kind of kit and style of policing on our streets every day, rather than the high-profile exceptional incident, that should command our attention. Being armed for the exceptional circumstance is reasonable and can protect us. Being armed as a norm is a vivid demonstration of something many people feel – that we are now policed by representatives of an often overbearing state, rather than by ourselves.

(Re the specific example of the Saunders case, I know that readers might have expected me to go the other way on this one and I'd love to know what you think.)

by Alex Deane

Earlier post about the police is here, Con Home post about the police here

USA, you’re being watched…

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Hat tip: Pundit Kitchen