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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


Lancashire Council has used snooping powers over 300 times since 2004

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One always thinks that covert surveillance powers are meant for suspected serious crimes and and terrorist offences.  And then, as we've revealed before, a local council pops up to disabuse you.

Lancashire special Over at the Lancashire Evening Post, some good Freedom of Information request research by the newspaper has revealed that Lancashire County Council has used RIPA powers over 300 times since 2004.

In the "statement that should never have had to have been made" of the week, Mark Jewell, Liberal Democrat councillor for Preston North West ward, said:

"it is not acceptable for authorities to spy on their own cleaners – as the county council did."

But then, why try to develop good management practices when you can instruct the boys in black to whip out the telephoto lenses?

RIPA powers should be banned for local authorities, or at least heavily curtailed.

By Alex Deane

Kid’s TV presenters stopped by police whilst wielding hairdryers

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Hairdryer In one of those stories that highlights how paranoid and overbearing our state has become; two children's TV presenters were stopped by police and had their details taken when they enacted a mock hunting scene for their morning show, Toonattik.

Despite wearing colourful combat gear and being armed only with plastic toy walkie-talkies and glittery hairdryers (as well as being pursued by a camera crew) the police still felt the need to intervene.

As Anna Williamson explained to the Metro:

"Jamie and I were kitted out in fake utility belts, we had the whole bulletproof flakjacket thing, we've got hairdryers in our belt, a kids' £1.99 walkie-talkie, hairbrushes and all that kind of stuff, and we were being followed by a camera crew and a boom mike and we get literally pulled over by four policemen and we were issued with a warning 'under the act of terrorism'."

Jamie Rickers, 32, added:  "We were stopped, not arrested, but they had to say 'we are holding you under the Anti-Terrorism Act because you're running around in flak jackets and a utility belt', and I said 'and please put spangly blue hairdryer' and he was, like, 'all right'."

This is one of those occasions where you look in vain for commonsense and are left wanting.

Surely a closer inspection would have revealed that these were not two people intent on causing the public harm? And, more to the point, when did wearing specific items of clothing become an offence?

Just like the guy arrested for some injudicious words on Twitter, or the photographers harrassed for taking pictures of London's landmarks, the situation in which these events occur is often ignored by a police force that has been trained to see potential terrorism in the most mundane of actions.

The tragedy is that it takes our policy-makers years to catch up with the feeling of public discontent on these problems.

By Dylan Sharpe

What is wrong in Sandwell?

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There must be something in the water…

You may remember Vanessa Kelly, fined for throwing bread to the ducks? Or Kerrie-Anne Hickin, issued with a fixed-penalty notice for littering when a tissue blew from her pocket and across a busy road? Or perhaps even Linda Langford, who was asked to remove the gnomes from her doorstep for health and safety reasons.

Shovelling A new year, but sadly no new Sandwell.

Last week, Sandwell Council refused to clear snow from outside a block of flats home to several pensioners on grounds of health and safety. As reported by the Birmingham Mail:

Ernest Harper phoned Sandwell Council this week to ask for grit to be put down outside his home in Smethwick’s Elmcroft block of flats.

But with the authority conserving stocks for more icy conditions the 81-year-old said he was told the entrance and pathways to Elmcroft would have to go untreated.

Mr Harper, a retired charge nurse at Winson Green’s former All Saints Hospital, then suggested council officials could be sent out to clear the snow with shovels, but was told that couldn’t happen either because of health and safety rules. 

Now, we knew that councils were worried about law-suits when it came to gritting during the icy conditions earlier this month and Alex made a direct plea for any examples. But to refuse to shovel a pathway for pensioners on health and safety grounds is frankly selfish and stupid.

Burnttoast But that almost doesn't compare to our latest Sandwell tragi-comedy:

Sandwell and West Birmingham Trust bosses are so sick of staff misusing toasters that they are introducing disciplinary punishments if a false alarm is set off, the annual fire report reveals. 

As important as fire safety is, as a result of this news, staff in the Trust are to receive training on how to use a toaster, which will of course be a good use of their time and money.

Speaking a few minutes ago on BBC Radio West Midlands, Alex Deane said:

“The hospital doesn’t seem to have thought about how this reflects on their staff.  If you need a lesson on how to work a toaster, should you really be trusted with medical equipment?

“These medical professionals don’t need this sort of babysitting and they should be allowed to get on with their work without this sort of bureaucratic nonsense.  And maybe the council should get some new toasters.”

By Dylan Sharpe

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 15.01.10

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Dear Supporter,


The past week has seen a number of stories of bullying and officious council behaviour as well as a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (more on this later) and a not-so-great landmark in the first trial without jury in Britain. Those who received last week’s newsletter will be aware that we wrote about Albert Stewart - the binman in Ormskirk who was removed from his round of 30 years by the council because he picked up rubbish left beside the wheelie bins on his route. Many of you contacted us saying that you sent emails to the council official responsible for this outrageous decision, and please remember to send us any interesting or revealing responses you receive back. It didn’t take long for the local press to pick up on our support for Albie, and we intend to keep the pressure up on the council until they reverse their decision.


Since we publicised Albert’s case, there have been several more shocking cases of the authorities abusing their power to inflict unnecessary distress on innocent people. On Monday we wrote about the businessman arrested in front of his young family and held in a cell for 4 hours because of an allegedly racist email sent to the council. As it turned out, not only was the email not racist in the slightest, the man in question didn’t even send it! Then a few days later, we received news of a popular 80 year-old livestock owner being threatened with imprisonment by his local council for a supposedly offensive billboard poster. Once again, not only was the poster completely inoffensive, it was also a birthday present organised by his friends and family!


It seems that a new decade has brought no let-up in the overbearing actions of those in authority. Remember, the place to read about these stories first is at http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/ and if you see or hear of any similar cases please do get in touch.



A great day for freedom in Britain

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that police powers to use terror laws to stop and search people without grounds for suspicion are illegal. As reported in many of the newspapers the following day, Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, declared it “a great day for freedom in Britain. Random stop and search powers were an abuse of our historic, hard-won liberties.” 

The facts are plain to see: There have been no successful prosecutions for terrorism offences resulting from these draconian stop and search powers. Last year Section 44 was employed more than 700 times every day without catching a single terrorist. 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.


However, 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.


Big Brother Watch will keep a close eye on how the government reacts to the ECHR ruling as we draw near to a general election.



Blogs of the Week


‘Web Cop’ to patrol internet for anti-police comments - West Midlands police announce plans to employ a ‘web cop’ whose role will be to find online criticism of the police and respond .Quite apart from the fact that this is a very poor way of changing people’s opinions (as opposed to say, actually doing better) how do we know that those who air their greviances aren’t being put on a blacklist?


Meet the friendly new fingerprint hawking the ID card - UK Identity and Passport Service unveil their latest attempt to boost the flat-lining take-up of the ID card with a friendly cartoon fingerprint and an advert that equates the government with the brutal Roman Empire. If it wasn’t so unintentionally funny, we’d be crying.


We should allow cameras to cover court proceedings - Head of Sky News, John Ryley, announces his intention to campaign for the introduction of broadcasting in court cases. Alex puts his Barrister’s hat (wig?) on to outline why we should support this campaign.


All those in the South East (and those with digital TV boxes that can pick-up regional programmes) tune into the BBC Politics Show South East (BBC1) at 12.25pm on Sunday to watch an in-depth feature on the Big Brother Watch report into local authority controlled CCTV cameras.



Media Coverage

Ormskirk Advertiser – Ormskirk Advertiser readers send in their support for Aughton binman Albert Stewart

Alex Deane, director of the national pressure group Big Brother Watch, said: “This man is being punished for doing his job well and for using his common sense.

“The council should be ashamed – and they should put him back on the route he loves and knows so well.”


Daily Mail – Stop-and-search terror powers declared illegal by human rights court

Metro – Random stop and search is illegal 

Daily Mail – Taxman using terror laws 15 times a day to spy on suspects

Alex Deane of the anti-surveillance pressure group Big Brother Watch said: ‘The widespread abuse of the law by councils has shown us how carefully we must look at the way these powers are used.

‘The extent of the use of RIPA by Revenue and Customs suggests that many individual taxpayers have been snooped on without their knowledge.’

He added: ‘Readers of the Mail who see this news today might rightly wonder who has been watching them.’

The Independent – Police stop and search powers ruled illegal

Coventry Telegraph – YouTube footage of fight outside Nuneaton nightclub

Lancashire Evening Post – Town Hall snoopers free to search your home

Coventry Telegraph – Coventry named CCTV camera capital of the UK

Andover Advertiser – Big Brother Watch’s power study

£330,000 for some more CCTV?

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Cherwell_logo The Bicester Advertiser is carrying a piece about CCTV in Cherwell district getting "a high-tech overhaul" to the tune of £330,000.

What does that considerable chunk of change get you?

Old monitors and video recorders are being replaced by new LCD screens and a hard-disk recording system.

The piece goes on to say

Cherwell District Council, which owns the equipment, is footing the bill.

Which is a slippery way of saying that the people who live there are paying for it.  Were they asked?

And one more thing:

The new system will also be capable of coping with an unlimited number of cameras if more were added in the future.

Oh, good.

By Alex Deane

Speed camera snaps stationary car…twice

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Speed camera A little way down Jeff Buck's street in Nuthall, Nottinghamshire, there is a speed camera. Due to a lack of off-road parking, Jeff parks his car in the road outside his house. In the past few weeks Jeff has received two different speeding tickets from the camera on his street…while his car has been parked.

I'll let Jeff explain the rest (as taken from the Nottingham Evening Post):

"I assumed the first time it happened that the police would put something in place to prevent it from happening again.

"I'm concerned now that every time someone triggers the camera I'll get these notices. I am amused by it, but also angry that I have to go to the trouble of contacting the police."

Jeff received his latest apology from Notts Police on Monday. He added:

"The photograph must presumably show two vehicles, with mine parked halfway on the pavement and road. It's amazing that whatever system is in place cannot tell the difference between a car that is motionless and one travelling at 37mph."

It truly is amazing, Jeff, and a sad example of the type of flawed surveillance technology our police and councils are coming to rely upon.

By Dylan Sharpe

The FBI faked emergencies to obtain thousands of phone records

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Fbi_1 Over at the ever-excellent Register, a story that should make you sit up and smack the monitor -

The FBI fabricated terrorism emergencies to obtain thousands of phone records between 2002 and 2006

The Bureau created "exigent letters" to get around rules that had already been significantly loosened by the Patriot Act. The letters were used to obtain some 2,000 phone records, The Washington Post reports.

Washington Post and New York Times journalists were among the targets.

The internal concerns were confirmed in emails that are part of an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general, which is due to report this month.

If true, this is just unbelievably wrong.

By Alex Deane

Guerrilla sticker picture of last week

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We saw this photo sent in by prolific sticker guerrilla ZacS – can there be a more telling picture of our Big Brother State? - and thought we'd share it with you.

If you haven't taken a look at the gallery recently, the number of photos is rising weekly. And if you haven't got your stickers yet, just get in touch with an address and the number of stickers you want and we'll send them straight out, free of charge!

The chance to name, shame, and take a photo of our overbearing state awaits!

Big Brother Britain

Man arrested under terrorism act for Twitter joke

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Last week a 26 year-old man, upon hearing that his local airport was closed due to snow and with a planned trip to Ireland just 8 days away, wrote the following 'tweet' to his followers on social-networking site Twitter:

"Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Twitter_1457340c While perhaps a little close to the mark under the current atmosphere of fear surrounding airport security (one that has, of course, prompted our dear leader into installing intrusive body scanners up and down the country), what happened next could only be described as a massive overreaction.

As reported in the Independent:

A week after posting the message on Twitter, Paul Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned for almost seven hours by detectives who interpreted his post as a security threat.

After he was released on bail, he was suspended from work pending an internal investigation, and has, he says, been banned from the Doncaster airport for life.

"I would never have thought, in a thousand years, that any of this would have happened because of a Twitter post," said Mr Chambers, 26. "I'm the most mild-mannered guy you could imagine."

Now, Big Brother Watch fully supports the use of intelligence and data to track-down those who would try and commit terrorism (as opposed to random stop and searches and invasive scanners etc). 

However it is pretty clear that a mid-20's, East Midlands-born man with no previous convictions, who posts an empty threat on a social networking site, is not announcing his next target so much as being slightly injudicious with his choice of words.

It is in times of hightened stress that our freedom and liberties are most sorely tested. In this case, it is fair to say that the police failed the test.

By Dylan Sharpe

Power2010 – Help make freedom and privacy a top issue

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For those who haven't yet heard of Power2010 this is how they explain the campaign:

Power2010-logo Our plan is simple. We want to identify the five key reforms that will change the way we do politics in this country – and we want you to tell us what these should be.

Together we will ensure every candidate standing for election backs these reforms so that the next Parliament delivers the change we need.

These worthy, if perhaps optimistic, aims are set to provide an interesting case study into what the general public really cares about - as opposed to the political elite.

The final shortlist of 29 issues was decided at a recent convention and they are now available to view on the Power2010 website where the public can vote for their favourites over the next 5 weeks.

At present, scrapping ID cards and rolling back the database state stands at an impressive number 2 in the voting, which is very encouraging. It would be good to see reduce the use of statutory instruments (a tool by which some of the most intrusive and repressive legislation has been introduced to Britain in the past decade) and expanding the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (a suggestion from our friends at the TaxPayers' Alliance) also make the top 5.

By Dylan Sharpe