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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


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.


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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