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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

Online privacy

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.

Smart meters – the future of spying?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Internet of things, Mobile Phones, Online privacy, Smart Meters, Surveillance, United States | 6 Comments

As several major energy companies continue to rush ahead with installations – British Gas plans to install 2m by the end of this year – there is still no concrete privacy protection in place, nor a clear set of rules about how and when they can be installed – and what rights consumers have to switch them off.

Back in 2009 we warned of the dangers around smart meters and how they could give prying eyes an unprecedented look inside our homes. We welcomed the Energy Minister’s commitment that they would not be compulsory but it is clear that serious issues still exist.

And we’re not the only ones aware of the clandestine value of smart meters connected to smart appliances throughout your home – so is the CIA.

Speaking at an event organised by In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, CIA Director David Petraeus said:

“Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing,”

He went on to say how these household spy devices “change our notions of secrecy.” Quite.

An internet of things is the next step in the evolution of the web. A new wave of web-enabled devices, from the latest HD TVs equipped with facial recognition to lightbulbs, will suddenly capture data about our every day lives and broadcast it to the world. Smart meters are the first step in commercialising some of this data, but the real risk is that if we do not put in place proper protection before they go live, the damage to privacy could be unprecedented.



Google may breach EU Data protection law

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Europe, Information Commissioner, Online privacy, Social Networking, Technology | 5 Comments

In a letter to Google CEO Larry Page today, French data protection regulator CNIL has warned  Google’s new privacy policy appears to violate the European Union’s data protection rules.

As our research published today shows, nine in ten people haven’t read the policy, with 47% of people who use a Google service regularly not knowing any change was being proposed.

The way Google collects and uses personal information has been a concern for privacy groups around the world, and the new policy will allow Google to combine everything it knows about you to better target advertisements – which is after all how it makes its money.

We have called for the company to not implement the new policy until its impact is fully understood and consumers can be confident there is adequate privacy protection in place.

Now CNIL have renewed their request to pause implementation of the policy pending a full review, saying Europe’s data protection authorities “are deeply concerned about the combination of personal data cross services.” As we have also highlighted, the new privacy policy’s vague wording was cited as being difficult to understand “even for trained privacy professionals”.

According to the letter the European regulators “have strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness of such processing, and about its compliance with” regional rules, and CNIL said its “preliminary analysis shows that Google’s new policy does not meet the requirements of the European Directive on Data Protection”.

The impact of Google’s new policy cannot be understated, but the public are in the dark about what the changes actually mean.

Companies should not be allowed to bury in legal jargon and vague statements how they handle our personal information, and it is very positive that the Article 29 Working Group are seeking to ensure consumers understand what the detail of Google’s new privacy policy means.

If people don’t understand what is happening to their personal information, how can they make an informed choice about using a service?



Here is a step by step guide on how to delete your Google browsing history before the new privacy policy begins tomorrow.

Nine in ten people haven’t read Google’s new privacy policy

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Europe, Mobile Phones, Online privacy, Privacy, Social Networking, Technology | 20 Comments

Research published today by Big Brother Watch highlights how only 12% of Google service users have read Google’s new privacy policy.

The study, undertaken with YouGov, found while 92% of people online use a Google service on a regular basis, 65% of people were not aware the change comes into effect this week and 47% of people did not know any change was being proposed.

This follows the Article 29 Working Party, a watchdog group of data protection authorities from EU member countries, calling for a pause in the implementation of the new policy to ‘check the possible consequences for the protection of the personal data of citizens.’

We support this position, and believe consumers are not adequately aware of the impact of these changes. This is all to clear as despite being just days away, only 12% of Google service users have read Google’s new privacy policy and less than half (40%) of Google service users think the company should bring it into force as planned on March 1st 2012.

Much more needs to be done to inform consumers what these changes mean, and how they can take control of their personal information before the changes come into effect. The impact of Google’s new policy cannot be understated, but the public are in the dark about what the changes actually mean.

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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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Your Facebook status is at risk if you fail to keep up repayments

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Online privacy, Social Networking, Technology | 3 Comments

Meet Lenddo.

The company claims to be “the first credit scoring service that uses your online social network to assess credit”and while only available in the Philippines, it raises some interesting questions.

When you use the site, the first thing Lenddo asks for is a Facebook account; once that’s logged in it also asks for things like Gmail and Twitter. The idea is that where traditional credit scoring isn’t available (in developing economies, for example) this provides a better way of assessing credit. It takes into account not just your content, but the people in your networks and their own financial track record.

And if you fail to keep up repayments then don’t expect to keep it quiet. In the T&Cs the site warns “if you fail to repay your loans or are late on repayments, we reserve the right to lower your credit score, notify members of your network and reduce the credit score of those who referred you.”

Apparently the company has already had enquiries from established banks and it would not be hard to see it becoming part of standard credit scoring. Suddenly your access to benefits, store cards and a mortgage might be affected by the actions of people who follow you on Twitter or you went to school with, but haven’t met since.

Once again, it reinforces that the best way to protect your privacy online is to control what goes online in the first place.  If the financial decisions of your friends online starts impacting your own ability to get credit, it would be a much more tangible reason to question the underlying motivation of social networks and how they value our privacy.

Five Billion Dollars of personal information

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in International, Online privacy, Privacy, Social Networking, Technology | 1 Comment

Facebook’s IPO is expected to be largest ever sale of shares by a US web company, with the business looking to raise raise $5bn. That would dwarf Google’s float in 2004, which raised $1.67bn.

The issue puts front and centre the commercial value of our personal information and raises some serious questions about the protection of privacy.

We’ve blogged previously on the latest functionality change, the ‘timeline’ and how it impacts on privacy. The company is under investigation in several countries for it’s data retention and storage policies, while others have highlighted the worrying amount of information the company gathers on people who do not even have a profile.

Facebook’s business is based on advertising, like most online companies. The number of ads on the site rose by 42% in 2011, while the price per ad grew by 18%. To increase the amount of money it can charge for ads, Facebook needs to convince advertisers that it is better able to target advertisements than alternative services. The more personal information about us Facebook has, the better Facebook can target advertisements, and the more it can charge for them.

So if investors start to see Facebook’s numbers sliding – and given that 2011 earnings were around $500m lower than analysts expected that isn’t too remote a possibility – the company may find itself forced to choose between user privacy and profit.

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Euro MP quits saying ACTA is a secretive, un-democratic masquerade.

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Europe, International, Internet freedom, Online privacy, Technology, Web blocking | 6 Comments

In a remarkable resignation statement, the man responsible for the EU’s ACTA negotiations has resigned, blasting the document as secrative and un-democratic.

Kader Arif, rapporteur for ACTA in the European Parliament quit his role as rapporteur saying:

”I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organisations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly.”

“As rapporteur of this text, I have faced never-before-seen manoeuvres from the right wing of this Parliament to impose a rushed calendar before public opinion could be alerted, thus depriving the Parliament of its right to expression and of the tools at its disposal to convey citizens’ legitimate demands.”

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Putting you back in charge of your personal information

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Europe, Online privacy, Social Networking, Technology | 3 Comments

On the day that it has emerged that O2 has exposed it’s customers mobile numbers when browsing websites, the biggest shake-up of data protection laws since the creation of the internet is being proposed by the European Union.

In the UK, the current Data Protection Act – the main piece of legislation protecting how and why our personal information can be collected, and what can be done with it – was written before Google had launched. An overhaul is long overdue, restoring the balance in favour of the consumer and protecting our privacy.

Today’s proposals will put forward several key new rules, many of which we at Big Brother Watch have previously called for. A broad ‘right to be forgotten’ will mean when you leave a service, for example Facebook or Gmail, you have the right to insist that all your data is deleted once your account is closed.Furthermore, the changes will mean you must be given easier access to the data held on you, and should have the right to move it to another provider if you decide to switch.

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Going offline to defend privacy and freedom online

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, International, Internet freedom, Online privacy, United States, Web blocking | 1 Comment

On January 18 2011, Wikipedia will voluntarily shut its website down for twelve hours, in protest at two pieces of legislation being considered in the US – SOPA and PIPA. Big Brother Watch will be doing the same.

Yes, it may appear a futile gesture. But we believe this is too important an issue to carry on as normal. Like many UK websites, several of our online services are run via the United States. As a result, our website falls under US law. It is grossly naive to think that legislation currently being considered in the US, which in the opinion of many constitutes a fundamental attack on freedom online, would not impact on businesses and individuals in the UK.

As the White House’s response to the massive public outcry against the proposals says, “we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” In their current form, the laws being considered in the US undoubtedly fall foul of each of those criteria.

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