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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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Another school starts fingerprinting students

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Childfingerprint Just before Christmas, Tory PPC Andrea Leadsom wrote a guest piece about her discovery that schools were regularly taking the fingerprints of their students as a means of identification.

In her post, she said that she would be writing to her local council to ask that they reject any attempts by schools in her area to introduce fingerprint scans.

However, today we have been called by a supporter in Hull who has flagged that a school in his local area has begun gathering fingerprints despite the objections of the council leader.

As reported by the Hull Daily Mail:

City council leader Carl Minns has criticised Hull Trinity House School for installing a biometric fingerprint system for pupils to get their school meals.

Councillor Minns says it goes against guidance issued to schools by the council.

The school, in Princes Dock Street, city centre, started using the system this week. Cllr Minns told the Mail: "My principal objection is on the grounds of information security.

"At some point the school will have to store a child's data on a computer and if it is subject to hacking or proper security is not there, then once the data is out there, it is out there for life and you can't get it back."

In recent days Big Brother Watch has been encouraging its supporters to bombard several misbehaving local councils, so it is refreshing to see a council leader showing such commonsense and concern for individual privacy.  

Councillor Carl Minns we applaud you for this stance and we will keep our readers updated on the progress of the council in getting Hull Trinity House School to reverse its position.

By Dylan Sharpe

This is not a joke

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Playmobile Can there be anything more amusingly telling about the state of our surveillance society than the Playmobil Security Check Point?

By Alex Deane

Local livestock owner threatened with imprisonment over 80th birthday present

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It would appear that a new decade has brought no let-up in the torrent of overbearing and frankly ludicrous actions by our Big Brother state.

Alongside the binman reprimanded for picking up rubbish, and the businessman arrested for a non-offensive email that he didn't write, we now have a popular local livestock owner threatened with imprisonment for a poster wishing him a happy 80th birthday.

As reported at Burnham-On-Sea.com

The family of well-known local livestock owner Arthur Duckett introduced the poster over the Christmas period to wish him a happy 80th birthday.

It shows Mr Duckett and his huge steer, Field Marshall, with the caption "a little man with big bulls."

Mr Duckett received a letter from Council enforcement officer David Crowle, stating: "It is the council’s view that the adverts are detrimental to the amenity of the area and as such will seek their removal."

It asked whether Mr Duckett woud be prepared to take down the "hoardings" without the need for formal action and warned that failure to abide by regulations could lead to a £400 fine or two years' imprisonment.

Quite apart from the appalling treatment of a well-liked 80 year-old man, in forcing him to remove the poster the council is pandering to the most wretched, humourless people who are apparently incapable of appreciating a mild joke with only the slightest hint of anything that could be deemed offensive.

I have placed the poster below. If any of our readers find it offensive they can write as much in the comments, however Big Brother Watch strongly recommends that they grow up.

For those who are more offended by the treatment of Arthur Duckett, we encourage you to send an email to David Crowle at [email protected] explaining why Arthur should be allowed to keep his poster (or words to that effect!).

Arthur-duckett-ad-sign 
By Dylan Sharpe

An end to stop and search

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Search As I've written over at CentreRight, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled today that the power to stop and search at random is unlawful.

I've covered this issue previously on this website and I point out once again that no successful prosecutions for terrorism offences ever resulted from these draconian stop and search powers in any case.  They failed to safeguard us from anything – they served only to intimidate, and to empower officials to intrude on us and our privacy without just cause – a terrible inversion of the proper relationship between the individual and the state,

So, today is a great day for freedom.  Random stop and search powers were an abuse of our historic, hard-won liberties and it is tremendous that it has come to an end. 

However, there are two notes of caution and regret that must be added.

First of all, this is the third occasion in very recent times that the European Court has had to tell the UK that we are behaving in a fundamentally illiberal and unjust way – together with the conviction of defendants solely or largely on the evidence of witnesses who do not attend trial for questioning, and the retention of samples from innocent people on the DNA database, this now shows a pattern of authoritarianism from our lawmakers that is to be lamented.

Secondly, let's not forget that this tremendous judgment cannot undo the embarrassment and anguish felt by the many people abused for no good reason under this now unlawful power.

By Alex Deane

Bradford Council – an example of good practice

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BradfordMDC Some readers of this blog point out that much of what we write is negative.  One might think that that's a reflection of the direction of policy on civil liberties issues in Britain today (and we have given praise where it's due more than once before), but nevertheless it's generally fair criticism.

Today, I'm pleased to point to Bradford Council as an example of good practice in our field.  As the Telegraph & Argus reports, Bradford has proudly reduced its use of RIPA surveillance;

“Since April 2007 a more robust approach has been adopted, ie notifying by letter persons against whom noise complaints are registered that they will be monitored by tape recording equipment installed in their next-door neighbours’ house or by officers listening. This changes what was covert surveillance into overt surveillance and therefore outside the scope of RIPA.”

Exactly.  Secret snooping isn't the only way to deal with these issues.  If it's ever right for it to be used for such problems, then it ought to be the last resort, rather than – as so often in this country now – the first tool used by overbearing councils.

So Big Brother Watch gives a hearty well done to Bradford Council – an example of a council doing its job proportionately whilst still protecting privacy.

By Alex Deane

Ungritted pavements – a telling example of our bureaucrats mistaking their role and duty in society

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Icy pavement I wrote last week about councils which decline to grit their pavements on the basis that they might incur legal liability from those nevertheless injured in "slip and trips" on the paths if they did so. The Telegraph has followed up on the story, reporting that

Heavy snow, low temperatures and a lack of gritting mean pavements throughout the country are too slippery to walk on safely. Hospitals have been struggling to cope with rising numbers of patients who have broken bones after falling on icy paths.

Yet the professional body that represents health and safety experts has issued a warning to businesses not to grit public paths – despite the fact that Britain is in the grip of its coldest winter for nearly half a century

Under current legislation, householders and companies open themselves up to legal action if they try to clear a public pavement outside their property. If they leave the path in a treacherous condition, they cannot be sued.

Councils, who have a responsibility for public highways, say they have no legal obligation to clear pavements.

As Dylan pointed out earlier today, it's not the job of the police to encourage social cohesion – it's their job to keep law and order.  Similarly, councils shouldn't live and die by what they're "legally obliged" to do – indeed, that would cut out a swathe of useful services; they should instead think about what might be of help to their residents, and endeavour to do those things.  In the current weather conditions, gritting the pavements is one such thing.

So, to my mind, councils should accept the risk of such lawsuits and do their bit in this weather.  Were such suits actually to be brought, they would be absurd and they should by booted out of courts by strong judges (or, in the alternative if forced by unjust law to find against the council, they ought to award the traditional derisory compensation of £1).  The corollary of that is that in the event of such cases coming about, we should all be prepared to support such councils that do do the right thing, and to decry efforts to punish them for using their good sense.  Big Brother Watch would be proud to do so.

By Alex Deane

**UPDATE** A keen-eyed correspondent draws my attention to this excellent piece by Malcolm Coles on this topic – pointing out that, AFA he and IK, nobody's ever actually been sued for doing the right thing and gritting…

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 08.01.10

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Dear Supporter,


 


A happy new year from all at Big Brother Watch and we hope that you all had an enjoyable Christmas. As you may have seen, Big Brother Watch was very busy over the festive period, releasing our second major report and being featured regularly throughout the media. We intend to begin 2010 in exactly the same way we finished 2009 – with regular blogposts on the major stories in liberty and privacy each day on our website; with more research projects planned, exposing the worst excesses of our big brother state; and, most importantly of all, more stories from our supporters that give us the opportunity to take the fight directly to those in power and abusing their positions.


 


We’d like to give our sincere thanks to all those who were generous enough to donate to Big Brother Watch over the Christmas period – your kindness massively helps our research and media efforts and we really appreciate it. If you want to donate, or just get in touch, all the details are available on our website http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/


 


 


An Estimated 20,000 Council Officers in Britain Are Able to Enter Private Property Without a Warrant



On Monday 28th December 2009, Big Brother Watch released our second major piece of research, Barging In, revealing that there are at least 14,793 officers in 73 per cent of local councils in Britain who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police escort.
 
Through Freedom of Information requests sent to every single local council in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Big Brother Watch arrived at a total figure for the number of environmental health technicians, anti-social behaviour officers, safety control inspectors and so on who, on 15th June 2009, if they so wished, could enter your private residence or place of work.
 
Top lines from the research (the full report including breakdown by local authority available here) include:

  • There are at least 14,793 officers in local councils nationwide who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police officer escort
  • That is equal to 47 officers in every local authority in Britain able to enter homes and workplaces
  • Given that 115 (27 per cent) local councils either refused to answer our FOI requests, or failed to answer in an acceptable manner, this figure could be much higher and indeed be as high as 20,000 council officers in Britain
  • Northamptonshire County Council and Glasgow City Council have the most officers able to enter your home with almost 500 each

Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, said:


“Once, a man’s home was his castle. Today the Big Brother state wants to inspect, regulate and standardise the inside of our homes. Councils are dishing out powers of entry to officers within their council for their own ease, without giving due thought to the public’s right to privacy and the potential for abuse. There needs to be a much closer eye kept on the number of officers granted the right to barge into private premises without a warrant.” 


Barging In generated some excellent media coverage in both the local and national news, and re-opened the debate on how much power we are comfortable with our local councils holding. As with Big Brother Is Watching our report into the growth of CCTV cameras in local authorities – we intend to conduct a yearly audit of councils and their uses of powers of entry. The full report, with full regional breakdown, is available to view by clicking here, so why not see how your own council fares?


 



Help us reinstate Albert


Yesterday on our website, we covered the story of Albert Stewart - the binman taken off his round of 34 years because he started picking up the rubbish residents had left beside their wheelie bins.


As we said in our piece, this is a sad indictment of Britain in 2010: A man who has committed no real offence, used his commonsense, done a little favour for families, and has actually helped foster a nicer environment in his area, is punished because the council has enforced pointless, pathetic rules designed to hit the law-abiding citizen in the pocket.


We need your help to get Albert reinstated on his old route. If you, like us, are appalled by West Lancashire Council’s actions, we urge you to send an angry email with your support for Albert to Pat Burgess, the council Refuse and Recycling Manager: [email protected]. Or if you would prefer to call and register your complaint, the number is: 01695 577177 ext.5432.
 

Top blogs since the last newsletter 

Crimes caught on CCTV fall by 70 per cent
 - six months after admitting that one crime is solved for every thousand CCTV cameras, and less than a month after Big Brother Watch releases a report questioning the effectiveness of CCTV, the Metropolitan Police announce that the proportion of all crimes solved using CCTV in London has fallen from half in 2003/4 to one in seven in 2008/9 – the pressure mounts…


 


Want your children to have school dinners? Surrender their fingerprints - Andrea Leadsom, Tory PPC for South Northamptonshire, writes about her dismay at finding out that schools are trying to gather pupil’s fingerprints as a replacement for Library cards and lunch money


 


Drogba, Robinho, Tevez and others find themselves carded - a bad day on the pitch for non-EU footballers, and off the pitch for the rest of us, as the ID card scheme takes another step towards implementation


 


 


A selection of our media coverage


 


Daily Telegraph – Number of crimes caught on CCTV falls by 70 per cent, Metropolitan Police admits



Evening Standard –
Huge drop in crimes solved by costly CCTV


Alexander Deane, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “It’s right to say that the experiment with CCTV has failed. They can’t have it both ways. Either the figures reflect a fall or they were wrong in the first place. Crimes that might have been solved by conventional methods go unsolved as a result.”


Daily Mail – The 20,000 snooper army: Vast number of town hall bureaucrats get power to enter your home without a warrant


Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, which carried out the research, said: ‘Once, a man’s home was his castle. Today, the Big Brother state wants to inspect, regulate and standardise the inside of our homes.


‘Councils are dishing out powers of entry to officers for their own ease, without giving due thought to the public’s right to privacy and the potential for abuse. There needs to be a much closer eye kept on the number of officers granted the right to barge into private premises without a warrant.’


Daily Telegraph - 20,000 council workers can enter homes without a warrant


The Sun – The Snoop Troop


Daily Express – 20,000 state snoopers who can walk into your homes


Daily Express – Debate: Has Britain become a Big Brother State?


South London Press – Wandsworth tops table of most CCTV cameras


Ipswich Evening Star – Councils ‘selling names and addresses’

Daily Telegraph – Police officers ‘prefer warmth of police station to catching criminals’ 


Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties campaign group, said: “There is a culture of laziness among many of today’s police. There is a common belief that police would rather chase targets than criminals.”


The Portsmouth News – You’re being watched…but do we really need 1,400 cameras?



Eastern Daily Press – We’re not a Big Brother state – claim

Southern Daily Echo – Southampton council accused over CCTV count


Lincolnshire Echo – Pressure group says CCTV violates rights


A full list of our media coverage for this month is available in our media archive here.

Outraged by Albert’s removal from his round? Contact the council and tell them what you think

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Yesterday, Dylan wrote about the disgraceful way binman Albert Stewart has been treated by Ormskirk Council – moved from his route for picking up rubbish left beside bins, i.e. exercising a bit of common sense and doing his job well.

I've just written to the relevant Council Officer to express my displeasure, and I thought that you might wish to do so too:

Pat Burgess
Refuse and Recycling Manager
Tel: 01695 577177 ext.5432

[email protected]

By Alex Deane

**UPDATE**

The council has neglected to reply to my complaint, but is responding to that of others.  Supporters have kindly sent Big Brother Watch the council response, which is this:

Thank you for your concern. As you will appreciate,  I  am unable to speak about a private matter between the Council and one of its staff.  However, please do not believe what you read in the papers as Mr Stewart has not been sacked nor has he had any alterations made to his terms and conditions of employment. 

Hmm.  From conversations with people in the area, Big Brother Watch understands that what they did was punish him by stopping him from being on his route and allocating him willy-nilly on a day-by-day basis so he never knows where he's going or what he'll be doing. Moving someone's place of work – taking them away from the place they've known and loved for 30 years, where people know you and call out to you as you pass by, your friends, as Mr Stewart said himself - how's that for changing your terms and conditions?

RIPA and local councils, redux

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Preston-CC As reported today over at the Lancashire Evening Post, RIPA laws are still being used by a Lancashire council to snoop on residents:

In the past year "static surveillance" including video was used five times by Preston Council to spy on families suspected of housing benefit fraud and to gain evidence of the "illegal dumping of waste" at a city supermarket.

We've written before about misuse of RIPA (when used to watch hedge trimming, for example) and it's great to see the LEP on the case.  Their story follows a Freedom of Information request they submitted after the Government announced plans last month to ban Town Halls from using intrusive techniques under RIPA for "trivial" offences such as school catchment area policing, "bin crimes" and dog fouling.

Local Liberal Democrat Councillor Bill Shannon, who has supported a motion calling on Preston Council to curb its use of this law, said:

"These powers are excessive and were brought in to counter terrorism.

"They should only be brought in for serious cases where the outcome is likely to lead to imprisonment and it seems none of these cases would result in terms of imprisonment. It surprises me."

Spot on.  I would also point out that those who are found to be innocent of all wrongdoing currently have no right to know that they were snooped on – if the subject (like the great Jenny Paton in Poole) finds out, it will often be by accident or by optional disclosure by the Council.  Big Brother Watch thinks that councils should have to tell you if you've been spied on when you've done nothing wrong.

Shannon also called on the council to release more information about when it is using the powers, adding: "We should know more and be able to say that these powers are only used in really serious cases." 

The LEP discovered that RIPA was authorised four times in 2009 by Preston Council to investigate possible housing benefit lasting eight days.  It was also used a further time for the entire month of June to monitor suspected fly-tipping at a Preston supermarket.

The LEP also reports that the five times RIPA was used by Preston last year

is a reduction on previous years. RIPA was used eight times in 2008, 26 times in 2007, on 34 occasions in 2006 and 23 times in 2005 – 96 times in the past five years.

RIPA powers were brought in nine years ago to help police combat serious crime and terrorism, but have been used by a range of public bodies to carry out more minor surveillance work.

Councils across the country have used the legislation nearly 10,000 times to carry out a range of spying.

Apparently, an attempt to limit its use at Preston Council was voted out by councillors in August 2008.  Whilst applauding those decent councillors who made that attempt, and lamenting the attitude of the majority who rejected it, Big Brother Watch would advise local councils to limit their use of RIPA powers in the face of clear public will on this issue – and urge voters to punish those who fail to do so.

By Alex Deane

Tired of watching homeowners, the council starts spying on its binmen

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As reported by the Ormskirk Advertiser today:

A binman from Ormskirk says he has been taken off his round of 34 years as ‘punishment’ for taking waste left at the side of wheelie bins. Albert Stewart, 60, of Scarisbrick Street, works as a refuse collector for West Lancashire Borough Council.

He told the Advertiser: “I have done the same round in Aughton for over 30 years, and just because I took some side waste, I’m being punished – they’ve taken me off my round.

“They weren’t just people I took rubbish from – they were my friends too.”

Wheelie_bin Of course, according to West Lancashire Borough Council, binmen should only empty wheelie bins and must leave other rubbish dumped beside the bins behind. Therefore, Albert has committed a heinous violation.

And why, might we ask, do they enforce this law? Well, householders caught leaving rubbish outside wheelie bins can be fined an initial Fixed-Penalty Notice of £100, which if they refuse to pay can go up as high as £1,000.

This case is a sad indictment of Britain as we enter a new decade. A man who has committed no real offence, used his commonsense, done a little favour for families, and has actually helped foster a nicer environment in his area, is punished because the council has enforced pointless, pathetic rules designed to hit the law-abiding citizen in the pocket.

The state needs to take its nose out of our bins and its hands out of our pockets.

Big Brother Watch also wants to see the council reinstate Albert to his usual route as soon as possible.

By Dylan Sharpe