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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

A (brief) recent history of security and the free press

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Databases, Freedom of Expression, Internet freedom, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, PRISM, Privacy, Surveillance, Terrorism Legislation, United States | 2 Comments


Today, the editor of the Guardian gives evidence to the Home Affairs select committee, as part of the committee’s work on counter terrorism.

Perhaps that might give the committee to question why Parliament learned of much of GCHQ’s activity from the newspaper, rather than from Ministers. Indeed, it seems on current evidence that will remain the case – as the Lords found on the 20th November, when they were told they could not even be informed which law authorised Project Tempora.

Lord Richard: My Lords, of course the Minister cannot go into details on these very sensitive matters. We all accept that. However, for the life of me, I do not see why she cannot answer a straightforward Question about which Minister authorised the project and why the existence of the project was not disclosed to the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill. These are not sensitive issues. They are pure matters of fact, surely capable of being answered.

Baroness Warsi: It is interesting that the noble Lord interprets it in that way but I think he would also accept that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on intelligence matters, which includes any comments on the project.

We have been repeatedly assured that it would be unacceptable for a central database of communications to be built – both by those in Government and those seeking to be.

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Feel free to annoy me

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in ASBO, Civil Liberties, Freedom of Expression | 3 Comments

reform clause 1We have previously warned that everyone from Christian street preachers to peaceful protesters will be subject to new draconian powers proposed by the Home Office which mean that individuals that are considered annoying can be driven from the streets. That is why we are very happy to support the newly formed Reform Clause 1 campaign which was launched in Parliament yesterday.

The campaign warns that the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will have a “chilling effect on free speech and expression”. We very much hope that this campaign will have the same amount of campaign success as the Reform Section 5 campaign that we backed earlier in the year.

At present Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) can only be issued if a court is fully satisfied that someone has caused or threatened to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” to someone else and the order is therefore “necessary” to protect the victim. Under the new Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA system), the courts will be able to impose sweeping curbs on people’s freedoms if they believe an individual is “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”.

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Who decides what we can read?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Freedom of Expression, Internet freedom, Web blocking | 8 Comments

commons daySpeaking at the Internet Service Providers Association, Security Minister James Brokenshire said that an announcement on blocking extremist websites is ‘forthcoming.’

This follows the Prime Minister telling Parliament on October 23 that: “We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force — it met again yesterday — setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites.”

Such an announcement has not been preceded by a public consultation, or any engagement with civil liberties and freedom of speech organisations. The threat the freedom of speech is only too clear.

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The punishment doesnt fit the crime when privacy is violated

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Data Protection, Information Commissioner | 2 Comments

keyboardPrivate Investigators who tricked companies and public services into handing over personal information have been found guilty of breaking data protection laws. Yet, despite committing thousands of offences in a single year, the individuals will only face a relatively small fine.

This case alone highlights that serious need for our courts to issue much tougher penalties for unlawfully obtaining or disclosing personal information, otherwise these cases will continue to occur.  In this case, the court heard that nearly 2000 offences were committed between April 1 2009 and May 12 2010 by investigators working for ICU Investigations Ltd, whose clients include Allianz Insurance Plc, Hove Council, Leeds Building Society and Dee Valley Water.

Currently, unlawfully obtaining personal data is punishable by a fine of up to £5000 in a magistrate’s court, or an unlimited fine at a crown court. Many people will be shocked to learn that people who have been caught illegally accessing other people’s medical records and personal information will face such minimal penalties. We have consistently warned about the vulnerability of our personal information and we support the ICO in wanting to see stiffer penalties introduced for section 55 breaches.

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The new ASBO is an assault on our liberty

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in ASBO, Civil Liberties | 12 Comments

iStock_000005413496Small[1]Are you a Christian preacher, busker or peaceful protester? Ever gotten the feeling that people find your presence annoying? Well, draconian new powers proposed by the Home Office could mean that you will be driven from the streets.

Controversial Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are set to be scrapped and replaced with a far wider reaching scheme called Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs), which are designed to be easier to obtain, require a lower evidential threshold and cover a wider range of behaviour.

We have previously warned that antisocial behaviour is a widespread problem for many communities and ASBOs have done little other than exacerbate tensions within communities and has failed to address the weaknesses within the legal system for dealing with perpetrators.

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Time for surveillance transparency

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Featured, Google, International, Internet freedom, Online privacy, Surveillance, Technology, United States | 9 Comments


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 ComRes on the public’s attitude to surveillance. Overwhelmingly they want more transparency about powers are being used.

  • 70% of British adults say British companies should publish reports on how often they receive requests for customer data from the police and security services.
  • 66% of British adults say that the Government should publish more data about how surveillance powers are used


Last year more than 570,000 data requests were made – up 15 percent from 2011 – by the police, security services, HMRC and various public bodies, including local councils and organisations like the Charity Commission, Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive. No breakdown of who is using the powers is made available, or what types of crime are being investigated.

Transparency is an essential part of ensuring surveillance powers are not abused and maintaining public confidence that they are being used proportionately. Much more information could be published without any risk to security.

British companies are not bound by secrecy laws from disclosing how many data requests they receive and they should follow the lead of companies like Microsoft and Google in publishing basic information about how many times they hand over customer data. We’re calling on companies like BT, Sky, Vodafone and EE to publish data about how many requests they receive from the police and security services in the same way that Google, Microsoft and Facebook do. Equally, Government can do much more.

Much more can be done to inform the debate. Already in the US much more data is published about how often surveillance powers are used and the Obama administration is moving to publish even more, including how many citizens are affected by requests and what sort of crimes are being investigated. It is possible to give the public a better understanding of how powers are being used without compromising security and it should be an urgent priority to explore what data could be made available.

Recently we wrote to the Prime Minister highlighting several pieces of information that have no security risks and should be public. They were:

  • The budget of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security committee
  • The number of data requests inspected by the Interception of Communications Commissioner to reach his error rate estimate
  • Figures on the use of surveillance powers broken down by agency, as opposed to the single UK figure currently published, including the scale of international intelligence sharing
  • The number of British citizens affected by such requests

Transparency is not a substitute for a proper legal framework and robust oversight. However, it is an important part of evaluating how the overall system is operating and at present far too much information is kept from the public on security grounds when in reality there is no security risk in publishing it. Such unnecessary secrecy only casts doubt upon what is happening.

UPDATE: BBW director, Nick Pickles, spoke to the BBC Sunday Politics (Yorkshire and Humberside) about surveillance transparency


Shop door surveillance : this is only the start

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Biometrics, CCTV, Marketing, Privacy, Technology | 10 Comments

Tesco’s new scanner sounds harmless enough – a camera that just works out whether you’re male or female, and roughly how old you are.

The advertisements shown on the screen change, and I’m sure quickly you’ll see cases of men with long hair being mistaken for women, to much hilarity from their friends.

There are two fundamental problems here; not least the fact that the only way you can ensure your face is not scanned is to not go into the shop.

Firstly, should we really be increasing the amount of surveillance we’re under so some companies can sell more advertising?

Secondly, the technology isn’t going to stay the same and be used in the same way.

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Councillor branded an “extremist” for organising meetings supporting equal marriage and animal rights

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 3 Comments

Image3It has been revealed that a Councillor may have been branded an “extremist” by the Metropolitan Police after he received information to indicate that he may feature on the National Domestic Extremist Database (NDED).

Ian Driver, a Green Party Councillor in Thanet, submitted a subject access request to the Metropolitan Police, the lead force for the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU), which revealed 22 database entries covering 2011 to 2013. Most of the entries were related to his role as an organiser of a campaign protecting against the export of live farm animals and one record related to him organising a meeting in support of Equal Marriage in 2012.

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New legislation will defend your right to record council meetings

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Councils, Freedom of Information | 1 Comment

Image3The government has announced that it will be creating a new law that will allow residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England.

This follows previous attempts by the Department for Communities and Local Government to force councils to be more transparent, after a string of councils have continued to prevent individuals from recording council meetings on health and safety and legal grounds.

Public access to meetings is a key part of holding local councils and public bodies to account and it’s wholly wrong for people not being able to film or tweet in public meetings for spurious legal reasons. Whether through Freedom of Information law, filming council meetings or publishing data, transparency is a critical check on those in power and an essential part of defending our liberties.

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The Lobbying Bill remains a threat to free speech

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Freedom of Expression | 1 Comment


Today Big Brother Watch’s logo appears alongside some groups you might not expect us to share a platform with – from Labour List to the League Against Cruel Sports, the Taxpayers Alliance to Christian Aid. The reason we are all united? The Lobbying Bill, which the House Of Lords begins debating today.

We’ve previously warned about the threat to freedom of speech this bill poses, bringing into regulation organisations that campaign on policy issues at local and national levels, not to mention  blogs like ConservativeHome. Their blog this morning summed up the position aptly:

“There is a perfectly valid debate to be had about lobbying, and about how best to make politics transparent. But the Bill is so poorly drafted, and its Parliamentary timetable so rushed, that in its current form it poses a real regulatory threat to people who are simply taking part in our national life by campaigning on issues of legitimate concern to them.”

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