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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

Oh, the irony

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 11 Comments

Bodyscan Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report warning the government that the introduction of body scanners at airports must be hastened in order to prevent unnecessary deaths.

As reported by the Daily Mail,

The cross-party group of MPs accused ministers of taking a ‘laissez-faire’ approach to security and said the government must be more proactive in preventing attacks using new technology.

Their report concludes: ‘The Government's position of adopting "proportionate" measures is a euphemism for adopting a wholly reactive stance and waiting for terrorists to demonstrate their new capabilities before implementing improved security measures.

Yet, overnight a story has emerged in The Sun that provides the perfect example of why the rush to install full-body scanners at airports up and down the country should be put on hold.

A Heathrow security man was quizzed by police after ogling a girl colleague "naked" in a new anti-terror body scanner.

Jo Margetson, 29, reported John Laker, 25, after he took her picture with the X-ray gadget and made a lewd comment. The pervy guard leered and told her: "I love those gigantic t**s."

She had entered the X-ray machine by mistake – and was horrified when Laker pressed a button to take a revealing photo.

Quelle surprise.

There needs to be much more thought given to the privacy and health concerns – how are those employed being trained and vetted and how dangerous is the radiation these machines produce?

As Alex wrote last week, body scanners are an intrusive and unnecessary over-reaction to a threat (the Christmas Day bomber) which could and should have been picked up using the intelligence available at the time.

Until they are put under the sort of rigorous testing that similar equipment has been subjected to, Big Brother Watch is campaigning for a complete suspension in the national roll-out of airport body scanners. 

By Dylan Sharpe

The view from Wycombe: Big Brother or the Big Society?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV | 11 Comments

Here at Big Brother Watch we try to be even-handed. We praised Wycombe District Council several times for at least offering residents an opportunity to give their views on the area's (extensive) CCTV network, but were saddened by their apparent lack of interest in views the residents have expressed. Our most recent contact with the authorities there generated some heat as one of our volunteers stickered an omnibanning pole in the area as part of our Naming and Shaming campaign. Strangely and foolishly, "someone" from the Council gave a comment to the Bucks Free Press threatening us with prosecution, a threat that has yet to have any basis in reality – despite the pole being promptly re-stickered the next day.

In response, Steve Baker, the Conservative PPC for Wycombe, got in touch with Big Brother Watch with an article he's written about the issue. The article is below.

If you'd like to write a guest post for us, get in touch. Particularly, as we've given a Tory a free kick here (in response to us kicking the Tory Council), any comment from any other party in Wycombe would be looked at with interest.

Steve bakerIn the last few days, we have had a round of guerrilla stickering in Wycombe. There was the sticker of the week. Then there was talk of prosecution at the Bucks Free Press. Finally, the sticker returned.

Now, it is a good photograph. As a totem for the surveillance society, it is superb. Perhaps some even find it superficially funny to see all-round "CCTV in operation" signs, a draconian alcohol prohibition, an exhortation not to urinate or defecate in the street and, as if in some final act of absurdity, a restriction on feeding the birds.

But why? Why was it thought necessary to watch, to prohibit and to spell out a requirement of common decency?

I have learned that this area of the town, Frogmoor, once accommodated an outreach to those with drinking problems and related issues. As a result, people from a wide area came to Frogmoor to drink rowdily. Intoxicated people terrorised the area and, as you might expect from the sign, urinated and defecated in the street. Feeding the large flock of pigeons surely finished off the job horribly.

If you actually had to live with that, it wouldn't be funny.

Read more

Westminster Lifestyle Survey

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy | 3 Comments

Whilst my walk home from work takes me past the Home Office and countless CCTV cameras, it is not often that one returns home to find the Big Brother state staring up from the doormat. Yet, that is exactly what happened last night when I stepped inside my front door and found the 'Westminster Lifestyle Survey' waiting patiently for my return.

Title The stated purpose of the document is to 'paint a clearer picture of the daily lives of our local community' which, although intrusive, could be seen as having some utility in terms of local service provision. But it is hard not to be shocked by the intrusiveness of some of the questions.

Eating Smoking The survey successfully nails each of the 'big hitters' in terms of interfering, nannying government. If you click on the thumbnails to the right you will see a few of the pages residents are encouraged to answer.

There is, of course, a 'what you eat' and 'smoking and drinking' questionnaire; the more concerning AboutYou HowYouFeel 'how do you feel?' and then the terrific 'About You', which not only requires you hand over all the standard information, but also your estimated household income and 'working status'.

NHS Westminster skillfully plays to its intended audience by offering a £10 high-street shopping voucher to the first 100 people to return the document completed, and claim that any personal information is kept 'strictly confidential'. 

There are several questions that come to mind. Why, for instance, does the survey require a name, address and financial income? – if it were simply for targeting local services it would not matter who was responding.

But the overall impression one gets reading this survey is that it is all about building a profile for each person in the area, so that they can be targeted and sold-to at every opportunity. The state wants to know what we eat, drink, smoke and feel because it already knows where we go, how much we spend and what our interests are.

Privacy is a foreign country.

By Dylan Sharpe

Crunch time

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV | 12 Comments

Biscuits An interesting report over at the Express about a recently apprehended criminal mastermind.

The "crime": eating some biscuits in the office.

The method of detection: workplace CCTV

The punishment: dismissal, criminal prosecution and conviction, £150 fine, £7 compensation.

Now apparently he should have realised that the biscuits weren't communal, but belonged to a colleague. So he shouldn't have eaten the biscuits. Naughty. And this felony would not have been solved but for the surveillance, so it must be justified! Right? Right..?

It's true. This culprit wouldn't have been nabbed, the wretched crime would have gone unsolved, but for the cameras. But in the end, it's a question of what sort of society we want to live in. One in which companies use CCTV to snoop on their own employees' biscuit consumption (and the police and courts take them seriously) is, I suggest, a society in which something is very wrong.

It's another demonstration of the fact that our Big Brother culture
isn't driven solely by the state – we'd be running a campaign with one eye firmly closed if we thought that.

By Alex Deane

Idaho bill – first step in limiting the use of body scanners

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | Leave a comment

IDAHO1 In a previous post I mentioned an interesting legislative proposal to limit the use of body scanners, effectively removing them from the first line of screening, meaning that they'd only be used if alternative methods triggered some sort of need.

Last week, Idaho's lower house passed the bill.

The bill now goes to the Idaho Senate. We'll keep you posted.

By Alex Deane

ANPR, elsewhere

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy | 4 Comments

Philippines.jpg Since Big Brother Watch began, we've catalogued the ways in which Britain "leads" the international field in snooping and surveillance.

Unhappily, I'm increasingly aware that others are following our example. Day after day I hear about other nations ramping up their CCTV capacity, building DNA databases, etcetera.

Today's no different – I've learned that authorities in the Philippines are proposing to build their own Automatic Numberplate Recognition System to go with their CCTV.

Because revenue-raising via pseudo-crime fighting tools isn't a uniquely British disease.

By Alex Deane

What would you do with £7 million?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV | 1 Comment

Bexley If you live in Bexley, don't worry, the decision's been made for you – more CCTV is the answer!

Of course, residents weren't offered a choice between cameras, or something else… get what you're given and be grateful, Bexley!

By Alex Deane

New IPS ID card blog – a grammar and truth vacuum

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ID cards | 28 Comments

Following on from my blogpost on Friday – collating all the various ways in which the government continues to push ID cards at us – it has emerged that the Home Office has put together a blog titled 'Understanding the identity card'.

Some may remember the unintentionally hilarious 'I am Spartacus' video from the Identity & Passport Service that we featured on the site earlier this year; well it seems that despite being a dog's dinner in marketing terms, the IPS has decided to run with their friendly fingerprint idea and produce four more bizarre and deeply misleading videos explaining the project.

Safe The first of the four is handily titled 'Your details will be safe with us'. As you will see if you click the screenshot on the right, they proudly announce that details will be "completely safe". Later in the video the IPS goes so far as to say they have an "excellent track record".

Yet, in 2008 the government lost over 29 million personal records. Amongst the data lost were the details for 25 million child benefit claimants; the Ministry of Justice lost information affecting more than 45,000 people, in some cases revealing their criminal records and credit histories; and the Home Office lost the personal details of 3,000 seasonal agricultural workers – including their passport numbers – when two CDs went missing in the post.

Skipping the maddening 'It’s like having a passport in your pocket' – no, having a passport is like having a passport in your pocket – and 'They help protect your identity' – again, a passport is far better at this. As Toby Stevens, of the Enterprise Privacy Group, argued last year, "in the early days, private companies won't be aware of what an ID card is supposed to look like, nor will they have the equipment to check the cards electronically, so 'flash and dash' is inevitable."

We then come to 'It won't become your life history'. This infomercial begins by saying "identity cards are not designed to track your every move". But then later says "An entry will go on your record when your card is checked – with your permission – against the National Identity Register. This will happen when you do something big, like apply for a mortgage." Begging the question – how is this not tracking?

Life History

All in all, the videos are a disgrace. Yet, it is the 'blog' (which you might think bears a passing resemblance to another blog you are presently reading) with Home Office moderated comments, and this three sentence grammar-free buzz-phrase: The new identity card. Fits in your pocket. Does loads – that really irks me. 

The new identity card. Most people don't want it. The government has said they're not compulsory. But the Home Office keep spending time and money promoting them.

By Dylan Sharpe

Hat-tip: our friends at NO2ID

DNA mistake

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 3 Comments

Dna A man in Yokohama was wrongly served with an arrest warrant and had his home searched after police mixed up his DNA records with someone else's: he was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Yokohama in October 2007, and he wrongly became the subject of a warrant for an unrelated theft which took place two years later because a DNA sample from the hit-and-run was wrongly filed in the police database.

Luckily for him, they worked out the mistake. Such mistakes are not uncommon.

UPDATE: Explanation from the relevant police department: human error.

Sounds familiar.

By Alex Deane


Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV | 2 Comments

CCTV burning Disreputable wrongdoer BT has teamed up with Braintree council to create a working partnership worthy of the Chuckle Brothers.

The Halstead Gazette has reported how the embarrassingly drawn out installation of CCTV in the town has struck another obstacle. Although the four cameras have now been installed in the town, they have been fitted with the wrong type of cable boxes, courtesy of BT.

The Gazette reports:

Halstead town councillor Jackie Pell said: “There can’t be much more that can go wrong.”

Oh Jackie, as if you needed to further curse the system. Consider the following:

Cameras not being watched

Downtime (for all manner of reasons)

Cameras pointing in the wrong direction

Maintenance and replacement cost   

Grainy unreliable footage that often cannot be used in court   

The blight on the scenery   

Or the realisation 6 months down the line that you’ve wasted your money

Finally, another two fingers down the lens as the Southend Echo highlights that there are often just two people in their local control centre monitoring the 300 high-tech cameras watching Essex's finest.

The Echo reports that residents have demanded more staff to man the cameras; but we think they would have been better off spending the cash on diligent police officers.

By James Stannard