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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


The Sandwell hat-trick

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Sandwell Council really can't help themselves.Gnome1

They tried to fine Vanessa Kelly when she and her little boy fed the ducks.  Inevitably, they ignominiously backed down.

They tried to fine Kerrie-Anne Hickin for dropping a paper tissue whilst running for a bus.  Yet to back down, but watch this space.

And today, as told by our friends at the Express and Star (who must be bemused by this flood of inane authoritarianism on their doorstep), they have had to apologise to Linda Langford, having wrongly ordered her to remove her "welcome" plaque and pair of garden gnomes (on the grounds that they posed a risk to others… It's elf and safety gone mad!

Is there a more absurd authority in these islands?  We'd love to hear from you if so…

By Alex Deane

*image posed by model to preserve anonymity of innocent gnomes involved

BBC photographer stopped under Section 44

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I was delighted to see that on the Andrew Marr show yesterday morning the eponymous host chose to take up nearly three minutes of his precious running-time to highlight the case of Jeff Overs.

Photographer Jeff is the BBC staff photographer who, when taking shots of the London skyline last week, found himself stopped and seached under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.

The Evening Standard covered the story late on Friday and for those who didn't catch Jeff on Sunday, a clip will be available here (for a short time only).

The story rightfully drew the ire of Mr Marr and his guests Mariella Frostrup and Matthew Parris, all of whom agreed that it was yet further evidence of state overreach in preventing terrorism and a case of a complete absence of common sense by the police officer involved. 

Sadly not every photographer who has been moved-along, searched or even detained by the police for similar reasons gets this same exposure, however we know it happens nearly every day.  

According to the Standard:

A spokeswoman said: "We recognise the balance between effective policing and respecting the rights of the media and the general public to take photographs.

"Guidance around the issue has been made clear to officers and PCSOs."

We wait to see if this makes any difference.

By Dylan Sharpe

Sandwell Council are at it AGAIN – Mother fined when tissue blows out of her pocket

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Unbelievably, less than two weeks since Sandwell Council were left embarrassed by the torrent of negative headlines resulting from their decision to fine a young mother for feeding the ducks; (arguably) the most officious local authority in the country has done it again – this time fining another mother £75 for allowing a tissue to blow from her pocket.

We at Big Brother Watch hate littering as much as most people; but in this instance the woman involved was running for a bus and the tissue escaped from her pocket. And secondly, it blew straight across the road which made it practically impossible for her to chase after it.

SandwellCouncil Once again we are left wondering 'where is the common sense?'

And once again, Sandwell Council are defending the action.

Big Brother Watch will be contacting Ms Hickin shortly to offer our support and hopefully force Sandwell into another humiliating defeat.

By Dylan Sharpe 

Schools to vet parents for christmas

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As reported by The Sunday Times yesterday, parents who help schools supervise children at Christmas events are being checked for a criminal record to see if they are paedophiles.

School_carol_service_2 The schools are apparently using a government database of sex offenders banned from working with children to vet adults under new guidelines.

According to the Times,

Graham McArthur, headmaster of Somersham primary school in Cambridgeshire, said checks on the two dozen parents volunteering to walk his 330 pupils to the carol service at nearby St John’s church on December 17 were necessary — even though they will be accompanied by teachers and a police community support escort when crossing the road.

“For the carol service they will need clearance [from the banned list] which is basically something we can do on the day. You need to see details of who they are, where they live and make several phone calls."

It is the 'several phone calls' which is the most unsettling. Put simply, it is a fundamental breach of privacy for parents to have their criminal records checked by school administrators. One wrong turn; a case of mistaken identity; or even a call to the wrong person (e.g. the parent's employer) and an innocent person could be unfairly branded for life.
This sort of overly officious and intrusive behaviour only serves to increase the culture of fear and mistrust that runs through our society.

By Dylan Sharpe 

Creating crimes, creates criminals

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When watching Big Brother, it is sometimes very difficult to avoid criticising the police. Yet we know that often it is not the officers that are to blame, rather the culture of law enforcement handed down to them from on high – the real Big Brother.

Acpo_badge This morning, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Denis O'Connor, has released a report into policing that shows how difficult the job of keeping law and order in Britain has become in 2009.

According to the Daily Telegraph:

Denis O’Connor said that forces have “drifted away” from the basics of front-line policing and serving the public.

He accused ministers, local authorities and police chiefs of “too many knee jerk reactions” to the problems of law and order.

“The principles of policing get drowned out in the noise,” he said. “You need to look at the number of units and departments at the Home Office, all the officials and the different committees and ask this question: do they think about the principles and values of the British model of policing?”

Centrally imposed targets have been criticised for distorting local police priorities, while red tape has diverted bobbies from the beat. Labour has created new crimes at a rate of nearly one a day since 1997. A separate report will say today that individual police officers solve an average of only nine offences a year.

It is that last paragraph which is the most shocking. When officers are having to deal with new offences at an average rate of a new crime a day, it is no wonder that we hear so many stories of people being arrested for spurious and frankly uncriminal acts.

There can be no doubt that there are plenty of cases of police heavy-handedness – and the rest of Mr O'Connor's report details the absurd tactics of the Met during the G20 protests – but every now and then we should spare a thought as to why our police behave like this.

More often than not it is because of – in the Chief Inspector's words - "knee-jerk" policies from above. And that, surely, is where the real problem lies.

By Dylan Sharpe

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 20.11.09

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Dear Supporter,


This week we bring you the news that Vanessa Kelly – the young mother given a £75 fixed penalty notice for feeding the ducks with her son – has scored a terrific victory in her battle with Sandwell Council. On Wednesday evening, the new leader of the council announced that he would be revoking the fine handed out to Vanessa and six other people for thowing bread to the ducks in Smethwick Hall Park.

As we wrote in the newsletter last week (previous newsletters are now available to view here) Big Brother Watch contacted Miss Kelly soon after we heard of her fine to offer our assistance, which she gratefully accepted (Alex Deane wrote exclusively in the Daily Telegraph that day about the whole affair and Big Brother Watch’s support), so we are delighted to see that Sandwell Council have been forced into this humiliating u-turn. However the Council still intends to fine people who feed ducks in the park and claim the problem is not with the bye-law but their signage in the area. 

Feeding birds is not a crime and people who do it are not criminals. Until Sandwell and other councils around the country stop trying to criminalise everyday pursuits, there will be more cases just like Vanessa’s. So Big Brother Watch is asking for any details of similar ridiculous fines placed on perfectly normal behaviour from across the UK. We want to build up a catalogue of petty council officialdom and name and shame the worst offenders. Your support, as ever, is much appreciated.

Three reasons to despise databases


Some of the most overbearing and intrusive policies of recent years have involved the collation and maintenance of huge government databases. DNA retention, Contactpoint and the ID card scheme have all required the state to gather, and have access to, vast amounts of our personal data. Yet we are told that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. Three stories this week have shown why we should always be wary when handing over our personal details.


1. You never know how it might be used – A high-flying lawyer who was wrongly accused of forging a signature and had her DNA taken by the police, is sacked when a routine check by her law firm revealed she was on the national database.


2. You never know who has access to it – T-Mobile employees decide to make some extra cash by flogging customer mobile phone details to the highest bidder.


3. What happens if the database fails? – A private company offering DNA health assessments files for bankruptcy, leaving a question mark over who owns all the data. 


While two of the above stories come from the private sector, the point remains that databases are open to abuse, and data loss - particularly within central and local government - is chronic. The message is clear: don’t hand over more than you absolutely have to! 



Guerrilla Sticker Campaign


It has been a week since the Big Brother Watch Guerrilla Sticker Action kicked off and we have already sent out over 7,000 stickers to the very furthest reaches of the UK and beyond to Austria, Spain and even Mississippi. But sadly we’re yet to receive any photos!


So, all those that have got their stickers – get snapping and get sending. If you haven’t asked for any stickers yet, email your name and address to [email protected] together with the number of stickers you would like us to send and we will post them in an envelope to that address; completely free of charge.


The chance to name, shame, and take a photo of our Big Brother State awaits!



Blogs of the Week


Imprisonment looming for man who does the right thing - fascinating case of a man who finds a shotgun - calls the police who tell him to bring it to the station – arrives at the police station and is arrested for posession of a firearm. Not only that, we later find that the police officer who allowed the man involved to walk into a criminal conviction is currently facing charges of misconduct. BBW is following this case closely and hope to be able to provide an update soon.


The dark ages - In our fifth guest post, investigative journalist Declan Wilkes runs us through a selection of the most intrusive and overbearing bills that have come before Parliament in the past few years and what to watch out for in the Queen’s Speech.


Seen, heard and constantly under surveillance - Salford Council are reprimanded for putting CCTV throughout their schools while in America they are giving parents access to 24-hour surveillance of their offspring in the classroom. Is there really any difference and, more importantly, are we in danger of anaesthetising future generations to CCTV cameras?



Media Coverage 


Daily Telegraph - Chief prosecutor backs state snooping plans

Dylan Sharpe, campaign director of Big Brother Watch, said: “It is not the government’s job to monitor our private communications. If the authorities suspect there is something going on they can do as they have always done and apply for a warrant from the courts. The DPP should also watch he doesn’t become a cheerleader for a government policy that the British people feel deeply uncomfortable about.”

City Talk 103.5FM – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Peter McDowall

Daily Express – CCTV in homes to spy on neighbours

But Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “People accept these cameras into their homes because they are afraid. The council might be installing them with the best intentions, but the end result is a culture of fear and mistrust driven by a failure by the borough and the police to have proper law enforcement in this area.

Metro – CCTV cameras placed inside homes

talkSPORT – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Ian Collins on the late show

BBC Look North – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Harry Gration

LBC 97.3FM – Alex Deane interviewed by James Whale on Drivetime

BBC News London – ‘Hidden CCTV’ installed in homes

Anti-CCTV group Big Brother Watch said the cameras would create a “culture of fear and mistrust” in the area. Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “People accept these cameras into their homes because they are afraid.

102.2 Smooth Radio – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Nick Hatfield

BBC Radio Lincolnshire – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by William Wright

Daily Mail – Secret CCTV cameras fitted INSIDE people’s homes to spy on neighbours outside

Heart 102.7FM Peterborough – Dylan Sharpe interviewed on Lunchtime News

Daily Mail – Big Brother quiz for new school parents: Officials launch 83-point probe into families’ lives

Dylan Sharpe of the Big Brother Watch pressure group said: ‘This is incredibly intrusive and asks questions which, quite frankly, Lincolnshire Community Health Services do not need to know and have no right knowing. Even worse, the NHS Trust has failed to make it clear that this is a voluntary questionnaire. I would advise any parent receiving this to stick it straight in the bin.’

Wolverhampton Express and Star – Mother wins support in duck fine battle

Daily Telegraph – Health and Safety inspectors ‘sent in to family homes’


Alex Deane, director of “Big Brother Watch”, said that the plans risked endangering trust between medical staff and patients. “This crosses the important line between individuals asking the state for help and the state forcing ‘help’ on us, he said. Every time there is an intrusion into our privacy, there is always an ostensible good intention and normally it is to do with the protection of children.”

Victory for Vanessa! Sandwell Council backs down

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We bring you the tremendous news this evening that Sandwell Council is to revoke the £75 fixed penalty notice it handed out to young mother Vanessa Kelly for feeding the ducks

 Vanessa £75 fine is to be dropped along with similar penalties imposed on six other people in Smethwick Hall Park.

However, according to the Sandwell Express and Star who broke the original story:

New Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper branded the charges “over the top”. He said new warning signs would now be installed in the park and they would be taking a “common sense approach”.

But he warned that wardens wearing head cameras will be on patrol at the Londonderry Lane park and once new signs telling people of the potential charges are put up, there would be a three warnings approach.

Big Brother Watch is proud to have pledged our support for Vanessa and equally proud that Sandwell Council have been forced into this humiliating retreat. But the above quote shows that this council have not learned their lesson and we are now appealing for anyone else who was the victim of a fixed penalty notice for feeding the ducks to send us their details.

Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, said:

“We are delighted, if unsurprised, that Sandwell Council have admitted defeat in this matter; and we are glad that Vanessa can go on with her life without this ludicrous fine hanging over her head.

“However I am concerned that Sandwell are still intending to issue fixed penalty notices to people who try and feed the ducks in this park.

“Feeding birds is not a crime and people who do it are not criminals. Until Sandwell and other councils around the country stop trying to criminalise everyday pursuits, there will be more cases just like Vanessa’s.”

By Dylan Sharpe

Karma strikes Cop

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Picture halved We note with great interest that Chief Superintendent Adrian Harper, who currently faces two charges of wilful misconduct while in a judicial or public office in relation to two speeding offences, is the policeman at the centre of the outrageous Paul Clarke case.

Harper was the officer who took the call from Mr Clarke when the latter found a firearm in his garden.  Harper allowed him to walk into the station with it (in order to hand it in) and effectively allowed him to walk into the criminal conviction he now has.

Whilst if convicted he will hardly be punished for this pair of offences with which he is charged to the same degree as poor Mr Clarke (who faces a five year minimum sentence for the firearms "offence"), he will certainly be facing some music.  I also note that he is not charged with speeding plain and simple, but rather with wilful misconduct – it's not just that he was apparently speeding, it's that he's been suspended as a result of alleged dishonesty in connection with the charges.  The facts of the case will be interesting to know – we do hope that the Surrey media stay on the case…

By Alex Deane – with a hat tip to SZ and lovers of "what goes around comes around" everywhere

*UPDATE* we were NOT the first with this story!

The dark ages

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Declan Declan Wilkes has worked as an investigative journalist and reporter for a decade. He is currently the News Editor of thelondondailynews.com. Ahead of the Queen’s Speech today, Declan reviews the proposed Labour bills in the field of civil liberties.

In spite of what you may have read about activities in the House of Commons last week, the state’s attempts to know what you do, where you go and what you think continues unabated.

Today's ‘slimline’ Queen’s Speech, with 15 bills plus two draft measures, is the continuation of a decade old project that has weakened the institutions that safeguard our democracy and hold the state to account.

Conservative Party Leader David Cameron has called it the "most divisive, short-termist, shamelessly self-serving" one "in living memory". Liberal Democrat frontman Nick Clegg has called on it to be cancelled.

The past week has seen ministers scrambling to secure their pet projects, hoping a possible new Conservative administration will be too preoccupied with the economy to dismantle the surveillance state apparatus that Chief Constables are only too happy to have.

The electronic database was sacrificed as the sharpest barb of a twin pronged attack on civil rights in order to get plans on the continued indefinite retention of innocents on the DNA database through parliament.

From the government that brought you Asbos, control orders, detention without trial, trial without jury, arbitrary extraditions, the largest DNA database in the world, continued secrecy of the courts, bailiffs into your homes, and allowed council jobsworths to spy on you come the latest round of freedom bashing bills.

Indefinite DNA retention

The Policing, Crime and Private Security Bill means innocent people still face the prospect of indefinite retention of their genetic profile – despite a European Court ruling that said keeping the data indefinitely was a violation of human rights.

Those suspected of terrorism offences will have their DNA stored for life. Those suspected of violent offences or sexual assaults will have data retained for six years despite never being charged or convicted.

Labour changed the law in 2004 so that anybody who came into contact with police could have their DNA taken and stored.

‘Mastering the internet’

The £2bn electronic database has been dropped from the Queens Speech; however much of the work has already been done.

Spymasters at GCHQ have been working on their 'Mastering the Internet' project for years, its existence only revealed in a job advert last year. Hundreds of millions of pounds have already been spent, Hewlett-Packard were already lined up to design and install the system and American defence giant Lockheed Martin have been providing GCHQ with data mining software.

A breakthrough may already have been reached that will combine data from social networking websites with details such as banking, retail and property records, allowing spooks to build extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals.

Good news?

There are rumours a bill may abolish restrictions on protests around Parliament could be included according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, people who want to protest in Parliament Square must first get permission from the police.

The Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was included in the Government's draft legislative programme earlier this year, would repeal that requirement.

What's out

While the threatened £2bn database of your emails, phone calls and text messages, will now not go ahead, at least not in this parliament, but it is a legally binding EU Directive that at some point will become law.

With Parliament likely to sit for about 40-70 days before an election next May, ministers admit not all proposals will become law.

Labours final attacks on civil liberties may never be law – bills that are not completed by the time the general election is announced can be blocked in the Lords who have thrown out their bills 444 times since 1999.

There in lies the reasoning behind the most political Queens Speech ever, Brown has nothing to lose.

For 13 years mission creep, secrecy and the perpetuity of taking justice out of the hands of responsible and accountable officials has eroded democracy and created a viable jail cell for a Big Brother state still under construction.

What crept through before Parliament Closed?

Before Parliament closed secrets inquests were resurrected buried deep away in the Coroners and Justice Bill which was passed in a close vote and now only needs Royal Assent.

While the Lord Chief Justice will have the power to veto a request for a private inquest and appoint the judge, ministers would still be able to set an inquest's terms of reference whilst restricting who can attend and what information was published.

Straw insists only a tiny number of cases would be affected – just like only a tiny amount of people would be affected by anti-terror legislation.

The main argument by the state was national security and airing of intercept evidence and 'sensitive' cases.

The clause provides a mechanism to cover up any deaths that could reveal negligence, wrongdoing or cause embarrassment creating a Big Brother state that can not be scrutinized. The natural erosion of justice extended to the dead.

Even the most basic tenet, deciding who can enter your home, has been subjugated by the state.

An amendment last week to the Proceeds of Crime Act, means a whole swathe of debt collectors, bailiffs and council officials can soon force their way in, seize cash, confiscate property and freeze assets on the basis of dodgy parking tickets or falling behind on your council tax.

Vulnerable people who struggle to stay on top of their bills face becoming easy targets for a profit driven cabal – obstructing officials can land you with a £2,500 fine and a year in jail.

A Statutory Instrument by Home Office Secretary Alan Johnson established this new intrusion, it required no parliamentary debate.

Today we see this government's final cynical blueprints.

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 13.11.09

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Dear Supporter,


Big Brother Watch recorded another first this week with our assistance in helping to fight a case of Big Brother state overreach. Yesterday, on hearing the news that Vanessa Kelly, a 26 year-old mother from Oldbury in the West Midlands, had been given a fixed penalty notice and fined £75 for throwing bread to the ducks in her local park, Big Brother Watch contacted Miss Kelly to offer our assistance in her fight against Sandwell Council. She gratefully accepted. This gives Big Brother Watch our first opportunity to repel our overbearing state. This will hopefully entice more people to come forward with shocking cases of privacy abuse and punitive action by our local authorities. If you hear of any such stories please do get in touch.

Another u-turn (a w-turn?) on the DNA database


This week Alan Johnson and the Home Office performed the spectacular and yet unsurprising feat of reneging on their commitment to remove the DNA of innocent people from the DNA database, announcing that they were now going to keep the biometric data of people who have never been convicted of any crime for a maximum of six years.


To put that in context, this means that over 850,000 innocent adults and juveniles whose genetic details are currently on the national database will be treated and tested as suspects each time a DNA sample is picked up at a crime scene.


Big Brother Watch has repeatedly made clear our opposition to the retention of the DNA of innocent people. We can only hope that, if given the chance, the Conservatives actually deliver on their promise to reverse this overbearing and intrusive policy.


Guerrilla Sticker Campaign


Big Brother Watch kicked off our first campaign this week with the launch of our guerrilla sticker action. We have thousands of stickers like the one on the right and we want to give them away so that you can name and shame the everyday invaders of your privacy.

Send us your name and address to [email protected] together with the number of stickers you would like us to send and we will post them in an envelope to that address, completely free of charge. Then email us your pictures and the best images will be hosted on the blog, on our facebook group and some very good pictures will be featured in this very newsletter! We have already had over 70 requests and sent out over 1500 stickers but we have many left to send.

On the right is our sticker pic of the week. The rogue’s gallery is now available to view here.



Blogs of the Week


Being a good citizen is great; acting like one is even better - TV funnyman Chris Addison aims a boot at BBW, misses, and ends up swallowing a shoddy council press release on Harrow’s new plans for a citizen snoopers militia.


How fortunate for government that people don’t think - Renowned BBC journalist Alan Pearce writes an exclusive post for the blog about the worst excesses of our big brother state, including the scary prospect of the e-borders exit visa scheme.


Ding dong merrily off, petty bureaucrat - Big Brother chucks a dart at the dartboard of things being banned this week and hits the spot marked ‘carol singers’, apparently because they might frighten us. Sure, they’re annoying but why can’t local councils just keep their noses out?



Media Coverage


MirrorMum is fined £75 for feeding ducks

Vanessa…is backed by Big Brother Watch, which battles intrusive officialdom. Its chief Alex Deane called the penalty “ludicrous” and said: “Can there be a more absurd example of the Big Brother state? She won’t pay, nor should she.”

MetroDNA of innocents to be held for six years

The measures outraged civil liberties groups, including Big Brother Watch. ‘Despite Alan Johnson’s recent promise to remove the DNA of innocent people, despite being unanimously defeated in the European Court, this government is still wrongly retaining samples,’ said its director, Alex Deane

Daily TelegraphDNA of innocent still to be retained for six years

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, added: “If the government thinks that because they are targeting teenagers they can get away with this sort of intrusion, they are wrong.”

Sky News – Alex Deane interviewed by Martin Stanford

Sun Talk – Alex Deane interviewed by John Gaunt, columnist at The Sun

Daily MailLabour U-turn on Big Brother state: Plan to log all texts and internet searches on hold

Alex Deane, director of anti-snooping campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘The Intercept Modernisation Programme is an enormous and unwarranted intrusion into every aspect of our private lives.

Daily ExpressArmy of snoops recruited to spy on neighbours

Alex Deane, director of pressure group Big Brother Watch, warned: “An Orwellian big-brother culture depends on everyone spying on everyone else – just as Harrow has planned.”

Daily TelegraphCouncil accused of recruiting army of 2,000 ‘snoopers’

But Alex Deane, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, said ”So now councils are trying to get us to spy on one another. If they’re successful it will lead to even less trust and ever more surveillance.”

LBC 97.3 – Alex Deane interviewed by Andrew Pierce on the Sunday Show