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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

Legal Action

Staring at Computers

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, United States | 4 Comments

A few weeks ago, a New York, Kyle McDonald artist installed software on the computers at a number of New York Apple stores, taking thousands of webcam photos of people standing in front of them.  He then created a photo exhibition calling it ‘People Staring at Computers,’ put it on his internet blog and the photos popped up on available computers in the stores where they were taken.

After posting the video, the US Secret Service raided McDonald’s apartment and shut down the website armed with a warrant on the grounds that he’d violated 18 USC section 1030, a law pertaining to computer crimes.  No arrests have yet been made, but this case brings up a number of interesting ideas.

Mr McDonald is now being represented by a civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses entirely on freedoms in the internet and digital sphere.  Their arguments include that McDonald did not knowingly violate any laws; he sought the permission of security guards and asked the consent of a number of the individuals featured in his project.  Additionally, he captured the images of people in a public place, willingly standing in front of countless cameras, albeit without their knowledge in most cases.

This particular section of law is primarily intended to protect against someone accessing computers used primarily by the US government and might impact US national security or international communication or relations.  I’m quite sure that computers in an Apple Store qualify as neither.  McDonald was entirely under the impression that it was within his rights to take pictures in a public place and publish them on the internet given he’d been granted the right permissions for the computers in the Apple stores in question.

However, there is also the issue of technology pushing past the limits of personal privacy in a way they never have before.  Image technology has progressed so far past most legislation, that the line between technologically advanced and perverse and unnecessary intrusion into peoples’ privacy.  The prevalence of mobile phone cameras, small digital cameras, CCTV cameras and other similar technology have desensitised most people to having their photo taken.  This has also, in turn, made people less sensitive to their rights to their own image and to the use of such images on a public sphere without their knowledge or permission.

The number of times we step in front of a camera every day is excessive, and the expectation is surely that, at some point, our picture will get taken.  But who owns the rights to that photo or determines when it can be used?  Who is in the right?  Should the use of these photos be controlled?  Or should the images of the private individuals be protected from those who would use it without their permission?  This case brings up an interesting debate about who civil liberties are protecting, I open this one up to the floor.

One Year On: The Coalition and Civil Liberties

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Control Orders, Databases, DNA database, Europe, ID cards, Legal Action, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | 4 Comments

Date99 Big Brother Watch has today (11th May) released a research paper outlining the progress the Coalition Government has made on civil liberties issues during its first year in office.

The paper concludes that, while real progress has been made, many of the Coalition's promises to roll back the power of the state remain unfulfilled.

Click here to download the report

Commenting on the report, Big Brother Watch Director Daniel Hamilton said:

"The Coalition has some real achievements to speak off. 

"Ministers should be congratulated for taking steps to scrap ID cards and remove the profiles of the one million innocent people held on the national DNA database.   They should also be praised for doing away with the ContactPoint database of children’s details and reforming the criminal record check regime.

"They do, however, have more work to do. 

"Police stop and search powers remain in place, Control Orders remain virtually unreformed and there has been no opt-out from the European Arrest Warrant.  When it comes to E-Borders, the Summary Care Record and Intercept Modernisation Programme, they have continued to implement the previous government’s policies – warts and all." 

Insurance company deploys covert surveillance to investigate claim

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 7 Comments

Insurance187 After a devastating motorcycle crash left Mark Noble in a wheelchair, he was grateful to receive £3.4 million to rebuild his life. However, his insurance company were loath to pay out such a sum, and when they received a tip off that he had recovered some use of his legs, they decided to use a team of private investigators to spy on him from an animal shelter near Mr. Noble’s house. They erected a covert camera from a 50 foot mast in an effort to prove he had exaggerated his injuries for financial gain.

The methods of Direct Line were exposed after a judge threw their claim out of court. Mr Justice Field said:

“Mr Noble was determined to walk unaided. He did not dishonestly conceal from the court or the expert witnesses his then true state of disability, or dishonestly emphasise his disability.”

The injuries occurred when his motorcycle was involved in a collision in 2003. Through hard work and rehabilitation, he recovered some use of his legs over time. After seeing him walk unaided, a neighbour contacted the insurance firm to tip them off. After leaving court, Mr. Noble said:

“There isn’t a day that has passed in the last seven-and-a-half years since the accident when I haven’t felt the effects. I am leading a life of painkillers and antibiotics.”

The fact that private firms are using covert surveillance in such a manner raises serious questions of just how far they should be allowed to go. Is it acceptable for them to film into people’s bedrooms while ‘investigating claims’? The list of organisations, both public and private, spying on people who aren’t aware of it seems to grow at a remarkable rate. Firms such as DNR Solutions claim to offer a ‘professional, lawful and ethical service’, but the monitoring of private citizens seems morally bankrupt.

TfL story updated

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | Leave a comment

The TfL post which generated considerable discussion and traffic yesterday has been updated with a response from TfL.

By Alex Deane

Transport for London breaks the law

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 18 Comments

Nameandshame Over at Adrian Short's blog, a shocking story from someone who, it seems, has every sympathy for TfL.

Short submitted an easy-to-answer Freedom of Information request to TfL about usage of Boris Bikes (he is a big fan and, having helped to promote them, wanted to plug their success).


if I want to get a response to my FOI request from TfL I am asked to enter into a contract with them whose terms include:

    "2.1.2 [You shall] only use the Transport Data in accordance with these Terms and Conditions and the Syndication Developer Guidelines, and not use such information in any way that causes detriment to TfL or brings TfL into disrepute. The rights granted to You under these Terms and Conditions are limited to accessing and displaying or otherwise making available the Transport Data for the purposes stated by You in Your registration."

So not only is TfL’s contract explicitly asking me to state my motive as a precondition of access, it also constrains me from using the information for any other purpose and arguably prevents me from using that information to criticise TfL, thereby causing it “detriment” or bringing it into “disrepute”. If I don’t agree to this they can deny access altogether and if I subsequently break the agreement in their view they can revoke access. This is a funny kind of free information.

That is absolutely disgraceful. No public authority has the right to withhold data on the basis that it might be used to the detriment of that authority. The data doesn't "belong" to the authority – it belongs to us, the public, who paid both for the services about which it is collated and for the collation. Part of the point of the Freedom of Information Act is that it might reveal something to the detriment of the Authority in question – that's the purpose of facilitating openness and scrutiny in the first place. Without that capacity, if the data can only be used for positive purposes, then those submitting queries are simply unpaid press officers for the Authority concerned.

We at Big Brother Watch are extremely concerned by this development. We use FoI for our research – whether it be into the number of CCTV cameras controlled by councils, the ability of officials to enter private property, monitoring microchips being inserted into millions of dustbins, breaches of privacy in medical records, the retention of DNA samples from innocent people on the state database, covert surveillance by local councils, CCTV cars operating on our streets, or money spent on surveillance cameras by local authorities, all of our reports have depended on the Freedom of Information Act to compel Authorities to disclose information about their activities. Wherever you stand on the issues I've just listed, and the issues which might form the subject of future research we would hope to do using the same legislation, presumably you agree that there should be such discussion, per se. After all, they're spending our money and their behaviour governs the way we live, so we should know about it.

By and large I'm very pleased to say that most authorities comply with their obligations under the Act when responding to us (and we happily name and shame those that don't). But if TfL behaves likes this and can get away with it, then others will follow. Our research will become more difficult to conduct, or simply impossible. So will that of other organisations that hope to hold government to account. That's why this is so serious. We do (he said immodestly) enjoy some success in the media in doing reactive stories based on news emerging elsewhere, but the real purpose of any organisation like ours must be to carry out proper, original research. Behaviour like TfL's makes this very difficult. So – this is a call to arms. Please link to this blog post or to Adrian's original write-up on Facebook, on Twitter, on any blog to which you might have access. If you care about the future of Freedom of Information Act – or about the future of information, or the future of freedom – then it's up to you.

By Alex Deane

Hat tip: Dick Puddlecote


Transport for London has contacted BBW. A TfL spokesperson said:

“Transport for London takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI)  extremely seriously and we provided a response to this FOI within 20 working days making clear that we would be publishing the remaining data on our website shortly and have since done so.  TfL is recognised within the developer community to be one of the most forward thinking public sector organisations in relation to making our data available and have set up a developers’ area on our website providing a host of information.  This move was universally welcomed in the developer community.  The terms and conditions on the developers area relate to reuse of our data and does not inhibit right of access.   Access and re-use are two separate things and it is normal practice to monitor re-use of IPR or copyrighted information when providing information in response to an FOI request. The reason this information is provided on the website is to provide value for money to London taxpayers and passengers. Saving information onto hard discs and sending securely through the post for one person is less cost efficient than making the same data available on the web for a large number of people.”

Alex Deane comments: It seems to me that this hardly answers the suggestion that TfL attempt to fetter the uses to which the data might be put, as a condition of releasing it, something they have no right to do. Indeed, if anything, it confirms it.

Clegg’s speech: a waste of time

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Control Orders, Databases, DNA database, Events, ID cards, Legal Action, Media coverage, Privacy | 3 Comments

Public-service I attended Nick Clegg's speech this morning, and discussed it on Victoria Derbyshire's show on Radio 5 Live today. Over at Public Service I have written an article which puts the argument more fully. In case you're interested, I thought I'd reproduce it here:

Perhaps against our better judgment, I and a number of other civil libertarians trudged through the rain to listen to Nick Clegg's speech at the Institute of Government today. What a waste of time it was.

One appreciates that today is the Deputy Prime Minister's birthday, but there's still no excuse for giving a speech so entirely without substance as this. Effectively, this was the governmental equivalent of the boy who cried "wolf" – he called a press conference, but had nothing to say. As I said with praise at the time, the mood music on offer when the coalition was formed was extremely encouraging – but now, fully seven months on, it is profoundly depressing for anyone who cares about freedom to find all-but exactly the same music on offer, with no substantive additions at all.

Mr Clegg spent a great deal of time talking about the expansion of Freedom of Information, which although hardly revolutionary is significant and welcome, and on libel and defamation reform, on which there was some substance. The trouble there is that that latter issue falls squarely in Ken Clarke's patch, not Clegg's, but – his desparate team must have thought – so what? The DPM desperately needed something substantive to say. And he'd obviously been denied any meat – at all – on the issues everyone was there for, i.e. our profoundly illiberal anti-terror legislation, under which hundreds of thousands of people are stopped and searched at random without a single terror-related arrest, people are kept under detention for a month before they're even charged, and individuals can be put on control orders indefinitely. All of this, he said, fell under the purview of the Home Secretary, and he wouldn't presume to say anything about it – peculiar, one might think, for the man supposedly in charge of the Freedom Bill, especially on the Control Orders front.

The case for action on this is plain, and not only because the Liberal Democrats were so clear and principled on the issue before the election. Control Orders are completely immoral. If you're a victim of this pernicious form of house arrest, not only are you denied sight of the evidence against you, you're not even told the nature of the accusation. So there's simply no way to defend yourself from it. When the Government can restrict liberty like this on a whim, it is not enough, on the one hand, to speak in head-shaking, deep-toned, pseudo-profound terms about the "grave threat" we face, and on the other offer assurances that the police and security services "know what they're doing" (just ask Jean-Charles De Menezes or Ian Tomlinson what they'd make of such assertions). At times like these, faced with an objectively less significant threat than this country faced throughout the 1970s, the kneejerk reaction on show from the last government is truly the greatest threat posed to our free society.

Such a threat is far from merely theoretical. Blame my barristerial background, perhaps, but I'm old-fashioned enough to believe in the presumption of innocence, and in trying people accused of crimes in courts, then finding them innocent or guilty. Such basic principles were gravely harmed by the last government, and once such bright line principles are breached then the freedoms of all of us are threatened.

Though he talks a good game, Clegg has hitherto done and is doing precisely nothing to reverse this illiberality. There were lofty words on offer on covert surveillance for absurd things and on our DNA database, the largest per capita in the world, with the details of more than an innocent people on it. There was even a single line about limiting the power of representatives of the state to enter private property.It was all rather familiar [for BBW followers...]. But on absolutely none of it was there any specificity. So one fears that the delays, reviews and empty speeches (co-ordinated with a suspiciously well-timed parade of supposedly impartial grandees coming out against Control Orders, and a remarkably coincidental escalation in the terror level we are told we face) are taking place as a prelude to substituting effectively the same kinds of regime on all of these issues. This is why, for example, one views Clegg's preferred formula, "Control Orders cannot survive in their current form", with such suspicion. We are very likely, I fear, to see a cosmetic change offered as a sop to the Liberal Democrats, with no real genuine action at all.

I do not allege that Clegg is actually happy with this. Perhaps he is making all manner of uncomfortable compromises. But is he actually right to do so? Of course the Lib Dems are enjoying the trappings of power, but Mr Clegg has to ask himself – is he truly the Deputy Prime Minister, or not? If he is, then this kind of delay by others on his fundamental manifesto pledges, leading to his excuse-riddled inaction, is simply inexcusable. If he's not… then what's he doing in the Coalition?

By Alex Deane

*PC Pro scoop* – the ICO colluded with Google in the course of their “investigation” into the Wi-Fi scandal

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action, Online privacy | Leave a comment

ICO logo Over at PC Pro, an unbelievable story: the Information Commissioner’s Office and Google "teamed up" on their response to Rob Halfon MP's complaint about the search giant's Wi-Fi scandal.

PC Pro obtained documents using the Freedom of Information Act which support this explosive allegation of collusion between "watchdog" and data snatcher.

As readers of this site will know well by now, Google was caught scraping private data from unsecured Wi-Fi connections in May as their cars trundled around the country, but initially said no personal information was collected.

The ICO "investigated" the issue in July, agreeing with that assertion; had it been up to the ICO, the whole scandal would have ended then and there, on an untrue basis that not even Google now maintains to be the case. But in October both Google and their pals at the ICO had to admit they were wrong after other data watchdogs abroad, who actually had an interest in doing some work, uncovered the unsurprising fact that email addresses, passwords and URLs had in fact been picked up.

Given that admission, Tory MP and friend of BBW Robert Halfon asked questions about the investigation in Parliament. Over to PC Pro:

After Google confessed the scraped data held more personal information than it first admitted, the ICO's group manager for business and industry, Dave Evans, sent an email to a Google employee with the subject line “guess what this might be about”.

Evans asked the Google employee, whose name has been redacted, if they were free for a “quick chat about the Wi-Fi business”.

“We are having an internal meeting next week about our next steps and obviously in light of Rob Halfon MP’s continued misrepresentation of the issue, the quicker we get something done the better,” Evans said.

The exchange was revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request by PC Pro. However, the ICO refused to hand over details of its Google investigation, claiming the information could hinder other data watchdogs’ on-going cases.

In response, Halfon told PC Pro that he still believes the ICO should have been tougher on Google. "I've had a very amicable meeting with the ICO, but I still think the organisation is falling short in its investigation of Google."

Which I think we can agree is pretty restrained in light of the ICO's cosy chat about Rob with Google, over whom they're supposed to be watching…

After Google admitted collecting personal data, the ICO declared the incident a “serious” breach of the Data Protection Act. The watchdog required Google to sign an “undertaking notice,” promising to delete the data, submit to an audit and improve its data practises.

But the documents obtained by PC Pro show that the ICO let Google submit changes to the undertaking, notably asking the watchdog to shrink down the scope of the audit:

“That draft scope was however extremely wide and one Google would definitely not be comfortable with without considerable refinement and discussion,” wrote a Google employee.

Google later explained that the company was worried about the precedent the audit might set in other countries.

The two organisations debated the timeframe, with the ICO preferring the audit happen within six months, while Google appeared to favour a year. In the end, the pair split the difference and agreed on nine months.

How chummy.

The documents also show ICO employees didn’t initially believe investigating the issue was "actual work":

“Apologies for taking a while to get back to you with yet more questions, but restructuring in the office and other (actual) work has delayed my response somewhat,” Evans wrote in May to a Google employee, two months before the watchdog looked at a sample of the collected data.

And there's no need to take my word for any of this. You can see the two collections of emails can be viewed in PDF format over at PC Pro (to whom, massive kudos for a first class bit of investigation).

For some time I have been maintaining that the ICO is an apologist for the worst offender in the field rather than a policeman of it. Well, here's the proof, in writing.

By Alex Deane

View from America: We must protect the jury system

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 2 Comments

Usflag166 There is a budding movement in the states as a defence against laws which convict citizens for victimless crimes and other judicial improprieties. The Florida state organizer for FIJA (Fully Informed Jury Association), James Cox, is originally from Great Britain and a strong advocate of individual rights. I had the privilege of meeting him at the Florida Liberty Summit where he subsequently unveiled his plans to combat the judicial status quo by asserting his rights as an activist and a FIJA organiser.

FIJA is a national non-profit educational organization, which informs individuals about their rights, powers and duties as jurors. FIJA seeks to distribute information to jurors which they are not likely to be told in court.

FIJA believes that "Liberty and Justice for All" will not return to America until individuals are fully informed of – and utilising – their power as jurors. The Founders knew how important juries are and stressed it accordingly. The jury is mentioned four times in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights [Article 3 - section 2 of the US Constitution and Amendments 5,6 and 7 of the Bill of Rights.]

Read more

Just how much more abusively can airport security treat fliers, before there is real action? One airport tries to find out…

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action, Privacy | 4 Comments

Amarillo Airport A woman is suing the US Government over an incident in which

airport staff allegedly pulled down her top and joked about her breasts in public view.The 23-year-old traveller, from Amarillo, US, is suing the US Government for the emotional distressed she says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents caused.

'The woman says she was singled out for "extended search procedures" while preparing to board a plane to Amarillo in May 2008.“As the TSA agent was frisking plaintiff, the agent pulled the plaintiff’s blouse completely down, exposing plaintiffs’ breasts to everyone in the area,” the lawsuit said.

Turns out I don't want to know the way to Amarillo. And it wasn't just one or two bad eggs, it seems. The lawsuit claims that

other employees laughed and made jokes about the incident "for an extended period of time".The distraught woman left the screening area to be consoled but when she re-entered the boarding area employees allegedly started joking about the matter."One male TSA employee expressed to the plaintiff that he wished he would have been there when she came through the first time and that 'he would just have to watch the video." 

We'll watch what happens with the case with interest, and report back.

By Alex Deane

Jury trials must be defended

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 4 Comments

Scales Louise Casey, the Government's victims' commissioner, has called for the scrapping of the right to trial by jury trial for lesser offences that "clog up the courts", to save money. She also points out that victims of serious crime have to wait for longer to give evidence in the Crown Court as a result.

She is no doubt right in her claim that almost 70,000 cases which could be heard by magistrates makes up more than 40% of the crown court's business every year, which costs more money than trials in the lower court. But she apparently fails to appreciate that hearing such cases isn't just a "nuisance" for the Crown Court – it's part of our system's essential functions.

The right to trial by a jury of one's peers is one of the cornerstones of the British criminal justice system and it has been the basis for fair and transparent justice for hundreds of years. Any attempt to limit jury trials must be resisted.

Calls to limit trial by jury are really made for two reasons – trials by Magistrates are cheaper, and conviction is more likely. Neither is a good reason to change the trial process.

Her alternative, superficially more attractive argument, is also totally false:

"We should not view the right to a jury trial as being so sacrosanct that its exercise should be at the cost of victims of serious crimes."

It's a false dichotomy. This is actually an argument for greater resources in the court system, and is no argument against jury trials at all. And ultimately, even if her parallel is right, a fair trial is sacrosanct. Once you start tinkering with it, it will prove very hard to stop.

By Alex Deane