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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

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Genital prints?

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There must be something in the water on the Champs-Élysées…

Only last month, former Justice Minister and Ile de France Euro MP Rachida Dati made reference to "fellatio" rather than "inflation" on a live radio interview.

Now it's the turn of Interior Minister Bruce Hortefeux to embarass himself.

Speaking in a live interview on France's LCI television channel, Hortefeux confused the terms for fingerprints ("empreintes digitales") with that for "genital prints" ("empreintes genitales").

A slip of the tongue or a freudian slip?

Those with a reasonable grasp of French can watch the full clip here

By Daniel Hamilton.

Fear in the Academy

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Dennis hayes Fear of free speech, not fear of “Fascist” fundamentalists, is rife in our universities

According to the recent report from the Quilliam Foundation, fundamentalist Muslim students at City University harass and intimidate staff and students. It’s alleged one student leader asserted in a speech  that the Islamic state enjoins cutting the hand of the thief, stoning adulterers, throwing homosexuals off mountain tops and killing kafirs.

Why is this news? Having taught once at a university with a Christian foundation and ethos some students complained about ‘aggressive Christianity’. They seemingly had a point on one occasion, for example, a small group of fundamentalist Christians circulated a flyer about those likely to go to hell. It was an impressive list: atheists; Muslims; Buddhists; homosexuals etcetera. It’s tempting to parody the likes of the Quilliam report in the manner of The Daily Mash ‘Report finds fundamentalist Christians want to brutally torture Muslims throughout eternity.’ It’s not news.

One response to people with crackpot Islamist views is that of Nick Cohen who hits the intellectual nail on the edge about this. He accuses academics of being abject in front of fundamentalist unreason and ignoring its consequences, a situation which he thinks encourages extremists such as the infamous UCL graduate, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the ‘Underpants’ bomber.

However Cohen uses a misleading analogy.  Lecturers won’t ‘confront illiberal views, he argues, for three reasons; their ignorance about extremist Islamists: their own opposition to Western intervention, and the general negative effects of the assault on civil liberties.  Because of this threefold handicap the majority of academics, when faced with Islamic extremists, will not ‘argue against them with the vigour with which they would argue against the white far right because at some level they think the hate is the fault of the west.’ 

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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