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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


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 

In the week it has been ruled unlawful…

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…Sussex PCSO's issue two schoolboys with stop and search forms for damage they didn't cause.

Sledging 12 year-old Jacob Mogre and Charlie Stakim, 11, were about to start sledging down a hill in West Sussex, when, as explained by the Daily Mail:

…they were beckoned by two police community support officers (and) asked why they were not in school and then quizzed about damage to a nearby fence.

They politely told the officers they knew nothing about the fence, but instead of simply being allowed to carry on playing they were given an official ‘stop and search’ form which they had to sign themselves.

Their parents have now been told the youngsters’ details will now go on a police database.

There are three points to make from this story. The first is in reference to that final line – these are two innocent boys whose details should be immediately binned. They committed no offence and they should absolutely not be added to any database.

The second is that there was simply no need for the PCSOs to issue the 'stop and search' papers. Community policing should be about having friendly chats with the public. The police had no reason to suspect the boys other than the fact they were out sledging. So why not just ask without the paperwork?

Finally, it is cases like this which demonstrate why the ECHR's decision on section 44 needs to be taken up by the government as soon as possible. It is a deeply flawed method of solving or preventing crimes which, more often than not, targets innocent people completely unnecessarily.

By Dylan Sharpe

‘Web Cop’ to patrol internet for anti-police comments

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Metro 'web officer' clipped Big Brother Watch completely missed this story when it appeared in the press last Friday (not altogether surprising given that it was given only minimal coverage in the Metro – see right – and Star), but apparently West Midlands Police are about to employ a full-time 'web cop'.

As explained by the Daily Star:

The officer will search for criticism of the police and use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Bebo to promote the force.

Assistant Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie told Police Review yesterday: “There will be someone on the web chatting about West Midlands Police right now, about whether they have had bad service or if they have heard a rumour about guns and gangs.”

He added: “A lot of chatter is ill-informed. We need to be much smarter about identifying these conversations so we can join in and influence what people think.”

How can this possibly be a good use of a policeman's time? The force will no doubt defend it by saying the 'web cop' will also look out for criminal activity online; but there are already more specific web-officers (e.g. in CEOP and the Fraud Squad) doing this on a case-by-case basis.

Two further points need to be made. Firstly, there are innumerable cases of officials from government or private companies trying to influence online behaviour and failing miserably. People invariably use the internet to air their greviances and will not appreciate having the official line repeated back to them.

Secondly, Big Brother Watch is concerned that this role is designed to prevent criticism of the police from taking place online. Those with understandable greviances should be free to air them in a democratic forum without fear of reprisal. We would appreciate the West Midlands police giving assurances that there will be no black-list created as a result of the web cop's work.

By Dylan Sharpe

Many thanks to Rodney for the tip on this story – much appreciated

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!).

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…