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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


Why consumers need choice to protect their privacy

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | Leave a comment

Writing on Huffington Post business, I outline why it’s not enough to have strong data protection laws to protect privacy – we need competitive markets too.

As the digital revolutions continues to fueled in a large part by advertising spending, a data arms race is emerging, with a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations engaged in a battle to know more about us — and therefore better target adverts — than their competitors.

This race to the bottom, where respecting consumer privacy is an obstacle to greater profit is the stark reality of a digital world where services are free and data is valuable. We are not customers, but a product, to be repackaged and marketed to the highest bidder.

In March this year, perhaps the single most important test for this balance began. Google, in what was purported to be a simplification of their existing product-specific privacy policies, a new, all-encompassing policy was implemented, despite a request from European data protection regulators for more time to assess the impact for consumer privacy.

The silo-walls came down, with a tsunami of information released across Google’s operations.

The time has come for privacy and competition regulators to act together, recognizing that it is essential for consumers not only to be fully informed about what happens to their data, but to have a real choice of service and on what terms those services are offered.

You can read the piece here.

Public shame should be punishment enough

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 10 Comments

As another individual is sentenced to jail time for causing offense, it seems that at present a week doesn’t go by where outrage over a joke or insensitive comment isn’t splashed across the front pages.

There have been two notable cases in October: Barry Thew, who wore a T-shirt bearing the message “One less pig; perfect justice” and “Killacopforfun.com haha”, was sentenced to jail for eight months under the Public Order Act and Matthew Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail after posting “grossly offensive” jokes on his Facebook page about missing April Jones  under the Malicious Communications Act 2003. It is worth noting on the same day and in the same court that Woods was sentenced, a man was fined £100 and ordered to pay £100 compensation for racially abusing a woman to her face.

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The Big Brother Scenario

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 12 Comments

New high definition CCTV cameras that are capable of identifying and tracking a person’s face from half a mile away are being rolled out across UK cities without public consultation.

The Independent has highlighted the use of the increasingly sophisticated cameras which they claim may be in breach of human rights laws. Andrew Rennison, the new surveillance camera commissioner, has predicted that there will be a public outcry if facial recognition systems and HD cameras are allowed to loom over our public areas.

Rennison said: “The technology has overtaken our ability to regulate it. I’m convinced that if we don’t regulate it properly – ie, the technological ability to use millions of images we capture – there will be a huge public backlash. It is the Big Brother scenario playing out large. It’s the ability to pick out your face in a crowd from a camera which is probably half a mile away.”

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Minister’s Warning On Drones

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 2 Comments

Home Office Minister, Damian Green MP, has warned that unmanned drones must only be used by police as part of air support plans if it is both “appropriate and proportionate”.

Speaking at the launch of the National Police Air Service (NPAS) Green said “Drones are like any other piece of kit – where it’s appropriate or proportionate to use them then we will look at using them.”

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Give the sky a wave, you might be on camera!

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 5 Comments

The Telegraph has reported that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) may be used over cities or big events like Glastonbury, according to a National Police Air Service director.

It has been suggested that drones could have been used during the Olympic Games but the idea was rejected due to it not being cost effective.

At a presentation to the defence industry, Superintendent Richard Watson said: “I think we missed an opportunity with the Olympics.  But there is an opportunity to do things differently.  Until we start to ask the questions, we will always think the same way.

“I see unmanned systems as part of the future.  There is an aircraft over London all the time – every day, giving images back. Why does it need to be a very expensive helicopter?”

Supt Watson added that the police would have to ensure that drones were cost effective in order to convince the public of their use against fears of a “Big Brother” state.

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PCC candidates can’t have a criminal record

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 2 Comments

The Home Office and the Electoral Commission have said that a PCC candidate cannot stand if they have a criminal record; this includes juvenile criminal records. This has forced two individuals to withdraw from their candidacy for Police and Crime Commissioner due them possessing a criminal record.

Bob Ashford, former Labour candidate for Avon and Somerset, and Alan Charles, former Labour candidate for Derbyshire, have both stood down as a PCC candidate due to crimes that they committed in their teens.

Bob Ashford committed an offence when he was just 13 years old and resulted in a £5 fine.  The result has been that an offence which took place over 46 years ago has had a disproportionate effect on his life now; preventing him from furthering his career.

Alan Charles committed an offence at the age of 17 resulting in a conditional discharge.  Charles’s record has thus far has not prevented him from serving as a councillor for twenty years and as vice chairman of the police authority for three years.

Why is it that the Home Office and the Electoral Commission have decided that a criminal record should be an obstacle for an individual wanting to stand as a PCC?  After all, you can become Prime Minister with a criminal record.

This raises the inevitable issue of criminal records, especially juvenile records. In most cases is it really right for an individual to pay the price for act of child stupidity all their life? Removing the right of any person (not imprisoned) to stand as a candidate in a democratic election is taking the election of public representatives out of the hands of the voting public. The Home Office and Electoral Commission should be concentrating on implementing policies which promote common sense rather than penalising people for a mistake that they made over forty years ago.

BA in privacy row

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 10 Comments

The Daily Mail has reported that British Airways has faced a backlash after announcing plans to use Google images in order to identify passengers.

The airline has said it wants to provide a more personal touch to its service by using the “Know Me” programme which will send messages with information about specific customers to the iPads of customer service agents and senior cabin crew, or update check in staff via the airline’s computer system.  The airline aims to send 4,500 of these personal messages a day by the end of 2012.

BA also aim to search individuals’ data held by the airline, including if a regular traveller has experienced problems on previous flights, such as delays, so that crew are primed to apologise.

Surely if BA want more information about us they can simply ask for it?

The announcement from BA comes on the same day that the Home Affairs Committee has released a report highlighting the growth in availability of personal information and the dangers it presents.

It is clear that the Information Commissioner’s Office needs to defend explicit consent from customers and punish those who obtain data without consent.  The current fine for those found to have unlawfully obtained, disclosed and sold personal data is currently, on average, only £100; clearly not nearly an effective enough deterrent.  Until jail sentences can be handed out to those who deliberately obtain sensitive information that they are not entitled to, the public cannot be sure that their privacy is adequately protected.

Reclaim your DNA

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Biometrics, Civil Liberties, DNA database, Home, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Take Action | 5 Comments

Our report on the DNA Database highlighted how the database has continued to grow in recent years, and that despite the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Act innocent people still have no timetable for when their DNA will be removed from the database.

We’re delighted to support GeneWatch’s ‘Reclaim your DNA’ campaign,which aims to bring about the swift removal of innocent people from the DNA database and the associated systems.

There are two ways to get involved. Firstly, write to your MP and ask them to write to the Home Secretary on your behalf.(You can find who your MP is here) We have drafted a letter to your MP for you to use that you can download here.

The three key questions you should ask are:

  • When will your DNA and fingerprint records be removed from police databases;
  • When will your DNA sample will be destroyed;
  • When will new police guidance be issued requiring the removal of your record of arrest from the Police National Computer (PNC)

You should also write to the Chief Constable of the police force who took your sample. (We’ve produced a template letter here.) If you don’t know who the relevant Chief Constable is you can find the individual police force websites here.

Children and young people, or their parents, who were given a conviction, reprimand or final warning for a single minor offence more than three years ago can also ask these questions.

Note: the new law does not require the removal of records from adults who have accepted a caution from the police, and people arrested for serious offences can have their records retained for three years in the first instance, or a further two if there is approval by a Magistrate’s court. However you will be entitled to be notified that an application for retention has been made.

First NHS organisation fined for breach of Data Protection Act

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 5 Comments

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced that a Welsh health board has become the first NHS organisation to be fined following a serious breach of the Data Protection Act.  The Aneurin Bevan Health Board has been fined £70,000 after a sensitive report that contained details relating to a patient’s health was sent to the wrong person.

The ICO said that the error occurred when a consultant emailed a letter to a secretary for formatting, but failed to include enough information for the secretary to identify the correct patient.  Subsequently, a misspelling of the patients name led to the report being sent to a former patient with a similar name.

The ICO found that neither members of staff had received data protection training and the organisation lacked the ‘adequate checks’ to ensure that personal information remained secure.

Sadly this kind of mistake is not an isolated incident and is yet another example of how poor administration can have extreme implications for our privacy.  Big Brother Watch has highlighted cases of the NHS being less than careful with our data in the past and this incident shows that the NHS needs to get a grip on data protection urgently before patients lose faith in the system and begin to withhold important information from doctors out of fear that it may be lost or used inappropriately.

It is incredible that the Information Commissioner still requires permission from individual NHS bodies to investigate if they are failing to protect patient information.  The Commissioner should be able to spot check any organisation to ensure privacy is being taken seriously.

Will Oxford Council back down on audio CCTV in taxis?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Audio recording, CCTV, Councils, Home, Information Commissioner, Privacy | 1 Comment

Amid the furore over Government plans for massively expanded internet surveillance, we didn’t announce an important piece of news from Oxford.

Following our campaign against plans to force taxis in the town to record audio and video of every journey, Oxford Council has announced it is suspending the policy. Our campaign was joined by Nicola Blackwood MP and Nigel Farage MEP, who both wrote to the Council about the plans.

The rules will now not come into force until until the ICO has reported on whether the policy is lawful – exactly what we called for Oxford Council to do when Big Brother Watch Director Nick Pickles was refused entry to a meeting organised with local taxi drivers.

Speaking to the Oxford Times, executive member for city development Colin Cook said: “I’m in favour of this scheme but we are waiting for a response from the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

Council spokesman Louisa Dean added: “We have had an inquiry from the Information Commissioner who wishes to better understand the scheme. We are happy to assist in those enquiries.”

Quite why the Council had to wait until days before the policy to come into effect before suspending it, when the ICO’s investigation began last year, is unclear.

This is an important step forward but it is not victory – it is one step closer, but until Oxford Council has completely abandoned this intrusive, unwarranted and unwanted policy to record the conversations of anyone using a taxi in Oxford.