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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


Big Brother will be watching you

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Civil Liberties, Home, Internet freedom, Online privacy, Surveillance | 29 Comments

In an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance as China and Iran, police and intelligence officers are to be handed powers to monitor people’s messages online.  The plans have been described as an “attack on the privacy” of a vast number of Britons by the Independent and have attracted little support from backbench MP’s.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced the governments intention to introduce legislation in next month’s Queen’s Speech which would allow law-enforcement agencies to check on social media, online gaming forums, calls, emails, texts and website traffic.  The plans would give officials the right to know “who speaks to whom on demand and in real time”.  The Home Office has said that the new law would keep crime-fighting abreast of communications developments and that a warrant would still be required to view the content of messages.

The Government has offered no justification for what is unprecedented intrusion into our lives, nor explained why promises made about civil liberties are being casually junked.  The silence from Home Office ministers has been deafening. It is remarkable that they wish to pry into everything we do online but seem intent on avoiding any public discussion.

These plans are an unprecedented attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet business.  No amount of scare-mongering can hide the fact that this policy is being condemned by MPs in all political parties.


Nick Pickles on BBC News discussing Internet Surveillance from BigBrotherWatch on Vimeo.

“Clare’s Law” must not bypass the legal system

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 5 Comments

The Home Office is expected to imminently announce pilot schemes of the so-called “Clare’s Law” that will give women the right to ask police about their partner’s violent history.  The pilot comes after a campaign for a change in the law to help protect women from domestic abuse by Michael Brown, the father of domestic violence and murder victim Clare Wood.  Clare had met her partner over Facebook and was unaware of his violent history against women, including harassment, threats and kidnapping at knifepoint.

Last year Theresa May agreed to open a ‘Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme’ to public consultation and is currently considering the responses.  Big Brother Watch have raised concerns over the scheme due to the need for far more detail on what “Clare’s Law” will mean in practice. Are the police going to disclose arrests or mere suspicion, despite someone never being convicted? We have a legal system based upon guilt needing to be proven in court and this should not be a means of bypassing that.

The scheme should also ensure that individuals have the right to access the information that is being held and disclosed regarding their previous convictions.  There is a genuine concern that this could become a bureaucratic nightmare of a similar nature to the current CRB system, with lives and reputations being tarnished for incorrect or irrelevant information being released.

The Home Office need to publish a very clear list of offences that will be disclosed to ensure consistency as well as guidance on how the police will assert that enquiries are genuine. Given existing difficulties in ensuring police and other public databases are not misused to infringe the privacy of law abiding citizens, this proposal needs to be very carefully managed or risks a serious burden on police forces and a threat to civil liberties.

The domestic violence charity Refuge have also raised concerns about the scheme.  Sandra Horley, chief executive, commented: “It is highly unlikely that Miss Wood was killed because the police didn’t inform her about her ex-partner’s violent history.  It is more likely that she was killed because the police did not respond to her emergency 999 call for help.

“We are at a loss to understand why the government is spending precious time and money –especially at a time of austerity – on this new scheme.  As the law stands, the public already have the right to ask and the police have the powers to disclose information about a man’s previous history.”

Apps can access your texts and calls

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home, Mobile Phones, Online privacy, Privacy, Social Networking | 7 Comments

As reported in The Sunday Times this weekend, Social media companies are using free smartphone apps that allow companies to spy on users’ text messages, intercept phone calls and track their location.  Unknowingly for many consumers, the terms and conditions associated with such apps give developers the right to access private information held in your device.

The Facebook app for Google’s Android smartphones have been downloaded more than 100million times, yet very few of its users are thought to be aware that they had agreed to give Facebook the right ‘to read SMS messages stored on your device or SIM card’.

Facebook have rebuked these claims, stating that the request for permission to read text messages was to allow the app to read and write data between itself and the phone’s SMS feature, rather than for the company to trawl individuals’ messages.

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The price of privacy : Councils spend half a billion pounds on CCTV in four years

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Civil Liberties, Councils, Home, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Research and reports, Surveillance | 79 Comments

Our latest report highlights the cost to local authorities of their CCTV operations – £515m in the past four years.

There are now at least 51,600 CCTV cameras controlled by local authorities, with five councils now operating more than 1,000 cameras. In comparison, £515m would put an extra 4,121 police constables on the streets – the equivalent of Northumbria police’s entire force.

The picture varies massively across the country, as you can see from our interactive map below, the huge increase in surveillance has not been a co-ordinated and intelligence-led response to crime, but a haphazard and badly measured rush to spy on citizens. The variations in how much councils were able to tell us, and the wide range of different structures in place to manage and monitor cameras, highlights the need for a national review of CCTV and its regulation.

As part of the report, we are calling for five changes to improve the way CCTV is regulated and evaluated. We believe the Government should:

  • Give the CCTV regulator the powers to enforce the code of practice
  • Require any publicly funded CCTV installation to refer to crime statistics or demonstrate a significant risk of harm before being commenced
  • Require public bodies to publish the instances where their CCTV cameras have been used in securing a conviction, and for what offences 
  • Require public bodies to publish in a standardised format the locations of their cameras (save for those used in direct protection of sites at risk of terrorism)
  • Begin a consultation on regulating private CCTV cameras, both those operated by commercial companies and by private individuals

You can download  the full report now.

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Bailiffs face stricter regulations

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Bailiffs, Civil Liberties, Councils, Home, Legal Action, Privacy | 2 Comments

“Too many people have experienced intrusive bailiff action … we want to restore balance to the system …. and strengthen protection for vulnerable people” Jonathan Djanogly MP

 The news today that regulations for bailiffs are to be overhauled is welcomed news.

The reforms will follow ‘Who’s knocking at your door?’ a report published last year by Big Brother Watch.  The report highlighted: how in just three years local councils had sent in bailiffs on more than six million occasions. In many cases it was for trivial issues like the late payment of parking fines; and that there are in excess of 500 companies engaged in recovering unpaid debts with a collective turnover of more than £3 billion per annum.

The introduction of new national standards could ban the use of force as well as setting out how and when bailiffs can enter your home.  The regulations will protect vulnerable people and ensure that the work carried out by bailiffs is conducted in a professional manner.

Jonathan Djanogly MP, Justice Minister said: “We want to restore balance to the system, improve clarity for both debtors and creditors, strengthen protection for vulnerable people and ensure that individuals, business and Government are able to collect the debts they are owed – but in a way that is fair and regulated by law.”

It is clear that in the past there have been too many cases where bailiffs have been a law unto themselves; barging their way into people’s homes, intimidating vulnerable members of the public and imposing rip-off charges.  Today’s announcement is a victory for civil liberties, for families and for common sense. Sending in bailiffs to recover debts should always be the absolute last resort and it is absolutely right that they should not be able to operate above the law.

Today the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on the way in which bailiffs should be regulated.  Big Brother Watch will be submitting proposals on how to transform bailiff action.  If you have any views that you would like us to submit within our report please email [email protected].

When is a crime not a crime?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Home, Information Commissioner, Police, Privacy | Leave a comment

Last year Big Brother Watch highlighted the troubling scale of the misuse of police databases by both officers and civilian staff. Our report was the first national research undertaken to expose the extent of these very serious invasions of privacy.

But are some of the officers involved escaping justice?

In recent days, the Daily Mail reported how in Essex a number of officers resigned pending disciplinary proceedings, while in Merseyside the Liverpool Echo reports on an officer who has been sacked for searching police databases 170 times for information on women he wanted to date.

Last year BBC’s Panorama questioned if staff resigning in this way – before the conclusion of disciplinary proceedings – officers and staff would be able to take up jobs that had they been sacked they would not have been able to. (While in some cases also retaining benefits and pensions).

Big Brother Watch believes anyone who abuses their access to personal information should be prosecuted under the Data Protection Act – in addition to whatever disciplinary action their employer may take. We have previously argued that in the most serious cases, judges should be able to impost custodial sentences for offences – something the Government has continued to oppose.

We are now researching the scale of this problem and will publish our findings in due course.  It is not good enough for the police to deal with these things ‘in house’ – whether that involves people losing their jobs or lesser sanctions. If evidence exists that someone has broken the law, then they should be prosecuted.


or stay out say Newham Council

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 7 Comments

It’s already been dubbed the ‘sex snoop list’ and residents are up in arms.

Newham Council’s decision to force residents to sign-in every visitor to their property in 30 tower blocks is a clear invasion of privacy and an entirely misguided response to a problem.

The policy was announced with less than 24 hours notice and staff are being asked to refuse entry to visitors who don’t sign in. Ridiculously, the council say it’s for fire safety and to combat anti-social behavior.

Despite finding the time and resources to implement the guest register, the council failed to fix the locks on doors for several years. Big Brother Watch knows which one would stop criminals and it isnt a list of who visited who.

Yet again a council has jumped for an intrusive solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Throwing civil liberties aside does not help create stronger communities, yet Newham Council seem intent on alientating residents with a total disregard for their privacy.

This is the kind of policy you’d expect in East Germany, not East London. Big Brother Watch is joining residents opposed to the scheme in calling for it to be abandoned immediately.

Restricting Public Demonstrations at London Olympics

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Home, Olympics | 5 Comments

In the wake of the Occupy movement, student protests and TUC rallies in London over the past year, the Home Office has ordered officials to draft plans for avoiding public protests during the London 2012 Olympics.  Such protests can be seen as both a security threat and an embarrassment to the host country.  Understandably, Government officials are keen to avoid tarnishing the much-awaited events of the coming summer with angry crowds or vocal protesters.

However, the means by which they intend to do so are disappointing at best.

We at Big Brother Watch understand that the realities of events such as the Olympics mean security concerns are much greater than usual.  As huge numbers of people swarm to one of the most global and symbolic events in the world, police and security will be confronted with major challenges requiring intensive training and quick and reasoned decision-making.  The reality is that any demonstration or protest can pose a very real threat to safety in London and the Olympic village for athletes, spectators and Londoners alike.  Terrorism threats and civil action can create chaos and public disturbance, which we have seen first-hand over the last year during protests against the cuts and the UK riots.  It is, therefore, hugely important to be aware of these risks and realities and to provide adequate security to ensure the events go off without a hitch.

Nevertheless, it is not necessary to do so by limiting the rights to free speech and a peaceful protest.

However justified the concerns for security, by taking this kind of action, the government, also appear to be keen on curbing free speech.  Regardless of the time or place, intentionally limiting the public’s right to protest is uncalled for and will inevitably be met with resistance.  Civil liberties campaigners will be quick to say that inhibiting such rights is a clear violation of the law and such a move will surely not be appreciated by lawyers, activists, or anyone interested in free speech, come to think of it.

Sheffield University professor Colin Hay said in response to these moves that if you attempt to limit the rights of individuals to a peaceful protest, then you invariably give them a reason to protest.  I’m inclined to agree and sympathetic to those who would feel slighted by these moves.

Rolling back civil liberties in the name of good PR or because security is shamefully unable to protect the public from or prevent security threats is simply unacceptable.  I’ve quoted him countless times, but I think this story warrants consultation of the brilliant statement of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security deserve neither.”

Big Brother is watching – and listening – in Oxford

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Audio recording, CCTV, Civil Liberties, Home, Information Commissioner, Privacy, Surveillance | 32 Comments

Be careful what you say if you decide to take a taxi or the bus in Oxford – every word will be recorded.

Despite being in clear breach of the guidance issued by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) and a gross invasion of privacy, Oxford Council has decided to make it a condition for all licensed black cabs in the city to record both audio and video.

The audio will be available to council officers and the police, and will cover any time the taxi’s engine is running and the 30 minutes after the engine has been switched off.

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Selling Personal Data

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Data Protection, Home, Online privacy | 5 Comments

According to the ICO yesterday, a former gambling industry worker has plead guilty to committing three offences under section 55 of the Data Protection Act.  For these offences, Marc Ben-Ezra was handed a three year conditional discharge and £1,700 fine in addition to just over £800 pounds in court fees.  This is his penance for selling more than 65,000 individuals’ personal data for a profit of around £25,000.

This case is a particularly blaring example of where the laws surrounding data protection are lacking.  Not only was Mr Ben-Ezra able to obtain and remove personal data from his place of work, but he was able to make a profit from doing so-even after his sentence for pleading guilty was handed down.   Read more