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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


£300 fine for failing to display state-sanctioned “no smoking” signs

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Regardless of one’s views on smoking, the overwhelming majority of Big Brother Watch supporters would agree it should be left up to the owner of an individual business as to how to communicate to their customers that smoking is forbidden on their premesis.

An astonishing report in The Publican this morning suggests that the owners of a pub in North Wales have been fined £300 for failing to  display the correct, state-sanctioned anti-smoking signs.

While awaiting the delivery of a set of “no smoking” signs, the bar in question displayed a series of hand-written posters.  These posters fell foul of a law declaring that that such signs must be at least 6.3 inches long and depict the standard “no smoking” symbol.

The £300 fine handed down by magistrates was comprised of a £150 fine for failing to display a “graphic representation of a burning cigarette enclosed in a red circle with a red bar which crossed the cigarette symbol“, £120 in court costs and a victims’ surcharge of £15.

Given that smoking in all enclosed public spaces in the United Kingdom is against the law, it seems rather odd that such a sign would be neccessary in the first place.  Regardless, this is petty bureaucracy of the very worst kind.

Have council officers and courts really got nothing better to do with their time than hand out petty and vindictive penalties such as this?

PATRIOT Act Surveillance Use Out of Control

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The National Intelligence Office in the Obama administration has told two US Senate Democrats that they are not able to count the number of people that have had their telephone or email communications monitored under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

This response came as several US lawmakers have expressed concerns over whether the Act was being interpreted reasonably and implemented as it was intended to.  The greatest concerns have been that law-abiding American citizens were being surveilled unnecessarily and that the secret court involved in deciding where to grant warrants is unchecked and unaccountable to Congress or voters.

The provisions of the Act were due to expire in May before the President extended them a further four years hours before they were due to expire.   The provisions pertain to ‘roving wiretaps,’ allowing authorities to monitor more than one mobile device in relation to a person of interest, and also to accessing library and business records of suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathisers.

In the political climate today, fear of terror threats runs deep and members of the public should be protected.  There is, however, a duty to protect the rights of law abiding citizens against intrusion and to protect their rights.  This uncontrolled use of surveillance laws by the US government is shameful and a gross misinterpretations of the powers of government.

Benjamin Franklin made an excellent point when he said that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Coalition “Red Tape Challenge”: a victory for common sense

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Big Brother Watch frequently receives complaints from members of the public outraged at being asked to provide their address to shops before being allowed to purchase a television set.

Current rules, as laid down in the Wireless Telegraphy Act, demand that shops gather this information and pass it to television licensing authorities in order for them to check that those who own TV equipment own a valid licence for their equipment.

Reports this morning suggest that the Business Secretary Vince Cable’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ review will – along with 160 other regulations abolish this requirement.

Along with the abolition of the rules governing TV licences rules on the age at which people are able to purchase Christmas crackers will also be canned.  The sale of products such as fly spray and toilet cleaner will no longer be strictly controlled under the “poisons licensing system”.

Commenting on proposals to abolish the requirement of shops selling liqueur chocolates to have an alcohol iicence, Business Minister Mark Prisk said: “The idea that we have to protect younger people from liqueur chocolates in this country is one that has to be got rid of“.  We couldn’t have put it better ourselves!

You can view the whole Guardian story here.

It goes without saying that this is a real victory for common sense and privacy that both Vince Cable and the Coalition Government should be congratulated for implementing.

There is, however, one glaring omission: Sunday trading laws, one of the centrepieces of the overbearing state, are set to remain in force.  We hope the Coalition will, in the fullness of time, abolish these antediluvian diktats which govern when businesses may trade and an individual may shop.

The Independent: A data disgrace

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This blog doesn’t usually quote articles in their entirety, but this morning’s leader article in The Independent says it all…

“The Coalition’s pledge to reverse Labour’s incursions into civil liberties has suddenly shed a significant amount of credibility. The Government had said that it will remove the DNA profiles of one million innocent people from police computers. But now the Home Office minister James Brokenshire has revealed that these profiles will be retained by forensic science laboratories. The retained samples will be anonymised. But, as has been pointed out, they will still have barcodes on them, which would enable the authorities, in theory, to link them back to individuals.

“The danger here is obvious. This particular government might have no such malign intentions. But there is no guarantee that a future administration will be so respectful of the public’s privacy in this respect. This potential for abuse motivated the campaign for these samples to be destroyed in the first place. The Government has indicated that destroying the DNA of the innocent would be impossible because the records are mixed up in batches alongside the DNA of the guilty. That needs to be thoroughly probed. The Government’s reputation as an upholder of civil liberties could depend on its accuracy.”

DNA Database: The government has committed a disgraceful u-turn

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Reports  this morning suggest that the government is to abandon its Coalition Agreement pledge to delete the profiles of more than 1 million innocent people from the national DNA database.

In a letter from the Home Office minister James Brokenshire to MPs, he confirmed that DNA profiles of those arrested but never charged or found guilty of a crime would be retained by forensic science  laboratories in an anonymised form. Profiles would “be considered to have been deleted even though the DNA profile record, minus the identification information, will still exist”.

Daniel Hamilton, Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said:

“James Brokenshire’s letter confirms that the details of more than a million innocent people will remain on the national DNA database.

“This is a disgraceful u-turn on the part of the government. It represents a betrayal of an explicit commitment made in the Coalition Agreement and stands in contravention of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights banning the retention of innocent people’s DNA.

“!Destroying physical DNA samples is a pointless gesture if the computer records are to be retained.

“Despite paying lip service to freedom and civil liberties, this government is fast proving itself to be every  bit as illiberal as its predecessor”.


Another day, another council data loss…

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According to a blog on the hilariously-titled Office of Inadequate Security blog, Kirklees Borough Council in Yorkshire has become the latest in a string of local authorites to fall victim to data theft.

Confidential files relating to the cases of twenty five members of the public and their long-term health needs were lost when a council laptop was stolen from the home of a council employee.

A report in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner has gone on to confirm that none of the personal information contained on the laptop was encrypted and that no member of the council’s staff has been disciplined.

Sadly, this case is not an isolated one.  Back in February, the Information Commissioner was forced to rule against Cambridgeshire County Council for breaching the Data Protection Act in almost exactly the same circumstances.

It’s high time that local authorities – particularly those with social care responsibilities such as Kirklees – ensure that their policies on data security and remote working place a paramount importance on encryption.  Encryption should not be thought of as an optional policy, but rather the cornerstone of a strategy designed to safeguard and protect the personal data and privacy of local residents from data loss and theft.

The Legality of Private Investigators

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Personal investigators have come under an incredible amount of criticism and scrutiny since the revelations of the hacking scandal.  This has left a number of experienced professionals in the field to beg further regulation or registration of investigators to prevent the degradation or discrediting of their profession.  Such a move to ensure that investigators are reputable and uphold the law in their line of work is a welcome idea and bringing forth legislation requiring registration or accreditation is an interesting suggestion.

It is, of course, not a new idea to officially register professionals in a field to ensure that they do not abuse the knowledge or skills inherent in their practice.  For example, it is used amongst professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, solicitors or doormen.  Having such a place to ensure that the professional you hire complies with the law and has reputable experience in their field is a useful resource for potential employers.  In the case of private investigators, where there are some expectations that the investigator can or will deliver on shady or illegal demands of the employer, it would be useful to know that the individuals in question abide by the law.

There is, of course, a line to be drawn on how far to regulate a profession, and this has been a discussion in the professional investigators for some time.  The BBC writes up a few thoughts on the subject this morning, which you can find here.  I open the discussion further as to what extent such a move would improve the accountability and reputation of investigators.  We welcome your comments.

Support the Hull shop-keeper fined £75 for a sticker on a lamp-post

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This morning, Big Brother Watch was alerted to what must truly be the most shocking case of council busy-bodyery we have ever come across.  Given that BBW was closely involved in the campaign to persuade Sandwell Council to overturn a fine imposed on a Sandwell woman who committed the heinous crime of feeding ducks with her daughter in a local park, that’s really saying something.

In Hull, a small business owner has been handed a £75 fine by the city council after a sticker for her party supply business Hullaballoon was found on a signpost in the city.  The council claims the business owner in question, a lady called Elaine Hakim, has “committed an offence of displaying an unlawful advertisement” under the Antisocial Behaviour Act and Highways Act.

Mrs Hakim – who is unaware as to how the sticker came to be on the lamp-post – has, understandably, refused to pay the fine and has been threatened with court action.

Pleasingly, she has not backed down to pressure from Hull Council’s bureaucrats and has vowed to fight the fine until the bitter end.

You can view more about this story here.

If you’d like to support Mrs Hakim, please get in touch with both the Chief Executive and Leader of Hull City Council to make your views clear.

The leader, Steve Brady can be reached at [email protected] or on 01482 711448 / 01482 615071.  Chief Executive, Nicola Yates can be reached at [email protected] or on 01482 615101.

Curbing free speech

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Guest post by Rupert Matthews

One of the less remarked upon results of the recent NoW phone hacking fandango came from David Cameron during the debate in the House of Commons. Our leftie media friends barely mentioned it in their eagerness to do down the Murdochs, but it has the potential to have far-reaching and not altogether beneficial results.

David Cameron said this during the debate. “As we discussed a few moments ago, if we are calling for greater transparency from the police, I think it is only right that we provide it in Government, too… So I will be consulting the Cabinet Secretary on an amendment to the ministerial code to require Ministers to record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives, regardless of the nature of the meeting. Permanent secretaries and special advisers will also be required to record such meetings. This information should be published quarterly.”

In answer to a question Mr Cameron indicated that there was a need to publish the links between the journalists and politicians more generally.

Let us look at the first, more restricted proposal first. This means that all ministers (not just cabinet ministers) will have to record all conversations they have with senior media people. So will ministerial aides. Don’t be fooled by the use of the word “meeting“, the follow up “regardless of the nature” means that this included not only formal meetings, but quick phone chats, bumping into each other at parties and any other personal contact. The information may be published quarterly, but no doubt the Prime Minister will have access to it more often than that. Interestingly, when Mr Cameron voluntarily released details of some of his recent meetings he included those with blog writers.

My first thought was how odd the proposal was. What have chats over a glass of wine between a minister and a newspaper editor got to do with phone hacking at the News of the World. Well, nothing obviously. So why is this measure being introduced and why the big rush? After all this measure is not being left until the Inquiry reports, it is being pushed ahead now.

Clearly the plan has attractions for Mr Cameron. It is not difficult to see what these might be.

A major problem faced by all prime ministers, and by party leaders in opposition, is that of leaks from senior colleagues. This government has been no different. We have learned via journalists of tensions around the cabinet table, of how individual ministers have lobbied for or against individual measures and of the private views of assorted senior government figures. No doubt the majority of these stories have come from the minister in question, or an aide, slipped to a journo over a quick sniffter in some quiet bar around Westminster. A meeting that was known of only by those attending.

Well, not any more.

Let us imagine that Minister A argues strongly against some measure, but is outvoted at Cabinet. Two days later a story appears in Newspaper B about Minister A’s views in which the journalist praises the minister for his courage in defending some service against heartless cuts imposed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then inspects the list of who met who when and finds that the only minister to meet the journalist in question was Minister A. Retribution would be swift, sudden and firm.

Or if Minister A does not record his meeting, why then he is in breach of the Ministerial Code. If he were to be found out, retribution would not be so much firm as final.

The Prime Minister would seem to have used an unrelated crisis to slip through a very handy centralisation of power into his own hands.

Now, you may or may not think that these sorts of “leaks” or “off the record briefings” are a good thing. But undoubtedly the proposed change to the ministerial code will stop them, or at least make them very much more difficult.

Looking now at the rather wider range of the proposal at which Mr Cameron seemed to be hinting – though to be fair no concrete proposal has yet emerged – we seem to be heading toward a Members Register of Media Meetings. If all MPs and journalists are included (as would appear to be the case) then this would be a most useful tool for the Whips of all Parliamentary parties. Discipline would be enforced, free thinking curtailed and free speech ended.

Should we be worried? I think so.

Nudge vs. Push

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The House of Lords Science and Technology committee has been discussing the ‘Nudge
Theory’ as a method of changing the behaviour of Britons when it comes to taking their health into their own hands.  The group backs the Government’s rejection of the ‘assumption that central government can only change people’s behaviour through rules and regulations’ and promises to find ‘intelligent ways to encourage support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.’

The meeting took place yesterday with a number of different ideas as to what ‘nudging’ actually entails, ranging from encouraging healthier living by building cycle highways or rearranging school cafeterias rather than banning certain foods or products from schools or to businesses.  The talks also covered the ‘Ethical Considerations’ of the Coalition’s civil liberties promises;

One of the Coalition’s main aims is to increase the freedom of the citizen. Indeed, this is a large part of the reason why we are so interested in finding non-coercive ways of changing behaviour: quite apart from the fact that such methods can be more effective than coercive methods, they are also much more respectful of the freedom of the individual.

The nanny state need not introduce restrictive legislature to make our minds up for us as to our health and private lives, so these sentiments are welcome.  Although the confusion over where it is acceptable to introduce new laws to influence these changes shouldn’t be there.  Pushing personal decisions such as dietary and exercise choices through legislation is no place for the government and does little to change public attitudes towards a healthier lifestyle.