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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

As Body Scanners are introduced, more and more issues arise

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 29 Comments

Body scan Our position on body scanners has been made clear on this site several times. They're an intrusive and unnecessary over-reaction to a threat (the Christmas Bomber) which could and should have been picked up using the intelligence available at the time – competent use of existing resources, not throwing money at new ones to be run by the same people whose incompetence led to the problem in the first place.

Still, I thought the following bullet points might be of interest:

  • Hundreds of people in the USA have complained about them. The complaints range from concern about genitals being seen to the use of the devices on children, to anger over passengers not being told they could request a pat-down search instead [which doesn't even apply here in the UK], to potential health worries from the scans (which are debated here).
  • It's interesting that in the USA, Airport Directors make a virtue of the fact that you can opt for another form of search. Shouldn't we have the same choice here?
  • Authoritative confirmation has been obtained that they can store images.
  • Even putting aside the cost of the scanners themselves (which here in the UK has been put at £80,000-£100,000 each and is the subject of a Congressional budget request of $1 billion) the cost to the USA in additional staffing costs is an eye-watering additional $2.4 billion. The cost to the UK is not yet known.
  • All this expense, and yet the scanners had not been field-tested before their introduction.
  • Federal authorities in the USA are now suggesting that, in the long term, everyone will have to go through the scanners – no selection of some individuals, no other option.
  • Religious objections continue.
  • An interesting legislative suggestion by an American politician would mean that scanners are not used as the first line of security, instead only once a concern has arisen via another part of the system.
  • Scanners have caused long delays at airports. Totally unforeseeable…!
  • There are other more productive security steps going undone as a result of this focus on body scanners, like improving security at small airports.
  • In a world in which thousands of places are now demanding scanners… the EU still can't sell any. The proverbial in the brewery…
  • There are apparently four main types of scanners. We in Europe have the most revealing.
  • Beside the other points made about the fact that the scanners don't work, consider the prospect of bombs implanted under the skin of suicide bombers. In that last link and also in this one you'll see that MI5 has said there are credible fears that that is already being planned (it has been speculated about for some time). Easily done and renders all this false-sense-of-security-generating scanning equipment entirely useless.It's far from just theoretical, too – as the recent assassination attempt on a Saudi Arabian prince involved hiding explosives in a body cavity.
  • Pakistan's Parliamentary delegation to the USA ended their trip in a protest against the scanners.
  • The EU's position on body scanners is to be announced in June – i note that in 2008 the Parliament said that scanners were degrading and rejected them, so any change in their position will have to be explained. This is a big decision and Big Brother Watch will be watching.
  • Final word to the good people at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC):

“They are uniquely intrusive as they allow the government to photograph air travelers stripped naked regardless of suspicion” Marc Rotenberg, EPIC Executive Director

By Alex Deane

Note that I've used the American spelling for Centre as, well, that's
how EPIC spell it. It's not a typo :)

Related posts elsewhere: The Lift ("legal issues in the fight against terrorism"), an extended, good Washington Post piece and a brilliant article in The Age by the IPA's Chris Berg: New airport security measures are overkill, since the risk of terrorism is already so tiny.

So come on, come on…Do the locomotion

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 10 Comments

We at Big Brother Watch have an eclectic taste in music, and when not at the grindstone we listen to our fair share of the latest poptastic hits.

Cheapthrills So, with our intuitive ear to the ground, we were alarmed to hear the case of Tom Shaw – a 25-year old band member aboard a South West Trains service.

Being a busy chap, Tom used the journey time to pen some ideas for future tracks his band could cover. As the train pulled in to Fareham station, Tom was approached by staff members and forced to leave the train.

Nonplussed, Tom asked for an explanation. Unbelievably, he was told that train security had become aware of him writing 'The Killers' on his list and had taken offence.

Throw away the key I hear you cry! If you plan to use a locomotive any time soon, make sure you delete Miss Dynamite, Guns N Roses, Slayer, Bombay Bicycle Club, Public Enemy and Massive Attack from your iPad; or face the wrath of our overbearing state.

South West Trains, you are a disgrace.

James 'headbanging' Stannard

Mystic Meg’s miracle cure

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ID cards | 13 Comments

Identity card junkie Meg Hillier MP has once again been caught pushing the abhorrent pink plastic.

MegHillierID This time she has written a piece for Progress (the New Labour think tank) where she suggests ID cards could be the miracle cure for social exclusion.

The bulk of her argument focuses on the flimsy claim that:

Currently 80 per cent of the population have passports. That means 20 per cent are without access to the highest standard of identity verification.

Firstly, the majority of that 20% are not without access to the highest standard of identity verification, they simply do not have a passport. Secondly, we at Big Brother Watch do not think that the offer of a £30 ID card that has so far cost the taxpayer around £4.5 billion, and levies punitive fines at people who don't keep their details up-to-date, is the silver bullet to social exclusion.

It should be noted that many individuals may not want or need a passport. Hillier may enjoy playing the social exclusion card to her home crowd, but most will see it as another shallow smokescreen in the Government's quest for total surveillance of the general public.

On several occasions Meg suggests the importance of building an identity footprint. She presumably has a size 13 and leaves a trail of bank statements wherever she treads.

But, as always, Meg is on hand to provide us with some unintentional hilarity, writing:

My vision is of an identity service where government's role is limited to ensuring safety and security in providing the infrastructure…the technological possibilities are exciting.

On the same day that Kable reported:

Alan Johnson said in the last year five people had been disciplined or dismissed for falsifying records or manipulating Home Office systems…. Six people have been disciplined for unauthorised access to a database or letting someone else use their log-in.

Hmmm, safety and security. For all you technological thrill seekers, you must agree that is quite exhilarating. 

By James Stannard

Council bans ice cream vans from outside schools

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 7 Comments

Ice-cream-van Earlier this week I was quoted condemning government plans to introduce annual fitness tests for school children. On top of the fact the proposal creates yet more tests and government interference for young students, it also represents the latest in a long line of 'health-fascism' legislation that threatens our traditional way of life.

Today, the Daily Mail is reporting that Hillingdon Council has taken this corrosive trend one step further:

The jingle of the ice cream van tells schoolchildren summer is on the way.

But the traditional treat has been banned by one council, which claims they encourage unhealthy eating.

Bureaucrats at Hillingdon council have declared that vans which park outside schools will be impounded under new rules.

They claim they were forced to act because there is 'a need to encourage healthier eating habits in children'.

Firstly a congratulations to Hillingdon for identifying the raison d'etre of ice cream vans. But minus marks for the sort of boneheaded nanny-statism that is all too common today.

Kids like ice cream and should be allowed to eat it. It's up to parents to encourage them to eat more healthily – not local councils.

Then there's the idea of impounding the vehicles of small business owners for the crime of trying to sell to their target market. 

All in all, this is a complete stinker of a policy. Hillingdon: you are named and shamed.

By Dylan Sharpe

Korma karma lands restaurant boss in jail

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

'Here we go again' is a phrase that we find ourselves using all too often on this blog; and despairingly we must begin today’s business with those four rotten words. As you remember, back in December we wrote about the shameful case involving Munir Hussain.

Restaurant Now, the Saturday edition of the Telegraph has reported an equally bewildering and almost identical incident.

Sal Miah, 35, who owns a restaurant in East Sussex, heard a noise in his cellar and on closer inspection discovered two teenagers who had broken in to his property. They subsequently fled but he trailed them to a park and dragged them back to the restaurant.

He was pursued by a gang who were in cahoots with the two hoodlums and when they became aggressive and began intimidating diners, he pushed them away and locked the door. Needless to say, when the police arrived, the gang accused Mr Miah of attacking them and he was duly bundled into the back of a squad car. He was released after five hours in a cell and had his DNA, fingerprints and police photograph taken.

Cases such as this are appearing more and more frequent and such injustice only bolsters the idea of  Britain having a ‘broken society’.

Academics, MPs and political commentators often cite a society void of individual social responsibility. Such claims are unsurprising given the fact that now not only do we live in fear of mindless yobs, but also those appointed to protect us from such malevolence.

Only last month Grandfather Gurmail Singh was beaten to death with a hammer as he tried to defend his shop from four teenagers stealing cigarettes and chocolate.

If we cannot defend ourselves where the state fails, then it will be harder to deny that our society is well and truly 'broke’.

By James Stannard

Rising number of CCTV cameras in schools

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Privacy | 13 Comments

Classroom CCTV We will always give credit where credit is due on Big Brother Watch; so massive credit to Dr Emmeline Taylor from the University of Salford, who has conducted a fascinating survey into the number of schools installing CCTV systems.

Dr Taylor surveyed 24 comprehensives in the north west of England and discovered that 23 had installed more than 20 cameras.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph:

As many as 85 per cent of teachers have reported the use of CCTV in their schools and one-in-10 said cameras had even been placed in toilets.

According to the study, some schools are also using other techniques such as fingerprinting, metal detectors, electronic identity cards, eye scanners and facial recognition systems.

Research funded by Salford University said that schools were increasingly becoming a “hotbed for surveillance practices” in the UK as children were subjected to checks for often mundane reasons such as borrowing a book from a library or paying for lunch.

But Dr Emmeline Taylor also suggested many schools were collecting CCTV images illegally by failing to inform pupils and visitors that they were being monitored under the Data Protection Act.

Placed alongside Big Brother Watch's report from last December into council-controlled CCTV cameras – it is clear that the UK is witnessing a massive expansion in surveillance technology.

As Alex wrote last week when discussing the latest case of cameras being placed in school toilets: "Schools are immunising their pupils to surveillance. First they say the cameras aren’t switched on, then they say they’re only pointing at the sinks – pupils and parents get used to the presence of the technology and by the time the cameras are capturing intimate moments, nobody will complain."

Dr Taylor's survey is fascinating – not only for the data or the fact that schools are collecting images without informing pupils, teachers and parents – but also because she has found no evidence that the rise in cameras is providing schools with a solution to the problems (crime, bullying, smoking, truancy) the CCTV was supposed to fix. Her own conclusion perhaps sums it up best:

“The effectiveness of CCTV in preventing and detecting crime remains extremely dubious, and its impact upon more trivial behaviours such as playing truant has not been measured.

“CCTV is often attributed with numerous benefits that often there is no evidence to suggest that it can deliver on.”

By Dylan Sharpe

A new crime a day since 1997

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 9 Comments

House_of_Commons The number of new laws created under Labour has been the subject of many a newspaper report/book/study in recent years. Nevertheless, Kevin Dowling's brilliant article on this "legislative diarrhoea" (copyright: Chris Huhne) from yesterday's Sunday Times has some terrific new examples that I will share with you below:

Under laws introduced by Labour, if you have failed to nominate a keyholder who can switch off your alarm you are guilty of an offence. You could be liable for a fine of £1,000 and could have to appear in front of a magistrate if you fail to pay a fixed penalty on time.

This is just one of 4,300 offences created by the Labour government since 1997 — an avalanche of legislation. It equates to an average of 28 offences every month since Labour came to power and it is getting worse. Under Gordon Brown, the Liberal Democrats say, the creation of offences has risen to 33 a month.

The Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act of 1998 illustrates Labour’s approach. Even before MPs and civil servants spent hundreds of hours drafting and passing the law, common sense would have told most people that it was not a good idea to set off a nuclear bomb.

So far, so amusing. To quote Chris Huhne (again) "most crimes that people care about have been illegal for years. Cutting crime should be about catching and reforming criminals, not creating law.” But there is a much more corrosive element to all this law-making:

Some laws can have drastic side-effects as in the recent case of Philip Bowles, a 60-year-old businessman with no previous convictions who was charged with Vat offences.

Bowles protested that he was unable to mount a proper defence because his money had been seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and his tax records had been taken by administrators.

He was refused legal aid to hire a forensic accountant to examine his confiscated records. He was found guilty of switching a Vat liability between two companies and jailed for 3½ years.

The sad case of Mr Bowles is just one of many examples over the past 12 years of the state creating a criminal from an otherwise law-abiding man. This explosion in "non-crimes" represents a massive intrusion into our liberty and is one of the major reasons behind Big Brother Watch's establishment.

At an event we hosted last month, Dominic Grieve – the Shadow Minister for Justice – said he was committed to introducing a Repeal Act in the first 100 days of a Conservative government; and you can tell from the choice quotes above that Chris Huhne, Lib Dem Home Affairs Spokesman, is similarly opposed to the government's approach. So one has to ask why our current leaders cannot see the gaping flaw in their catch-all approach to legislating?

By Dylan Sharpe 

How easy is it for someone to track you online..? Find out here…

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Online privacy | 7 Comments

500x_panopticlick We've all heard of cookies on our browsers, but just how easy is it for someone to track us online?

Even putting aside the issue of data retention by your ISP, the answer seems to be, "pretty easy". The good people over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have produced Panopticlick (great name) which has sampled three quarters of a million (volunteer) browsers so far and each has unique characteristics which would enable the browser to be tracked.

Worth a look (and in recommending it, I note their bulletproof privacy policy…!). There are also some good tips on how to make it harder for your browser to be tracked online (with more here, too).

By Alex Deane

Hat tip: AT

Are you shy? Then you’re probably a terrorist

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

Talksport … or so this advertisement for the Anti-Terrorist hotline on talkSPORT would have you believe.

The 40 second advert explicitly suggests that someone who

  • Keeps himself to himself
  • Draws his curtains
  • and pays with cash

is a potential or probable terrorist.

The advert is 40 seconds long and is a must-listen. It's borderline not work safe – not because there's anything rude in it, but because it will make you so angry you'll most likely punch the monitor.

Shame on you, talkSPORT and co.

By Alex Deane

(For more on whipping-up-an-entirely-unjustified fear-of-terrorists-frenzy, you might enjoy this post)

Hat tip: LWW

T-shirts: The latest bugbear of our overbearing state

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 6 Comments

Freedomtshirt When Lloyd Berks – a 38 year-old football coach from Bexley – walked into Gatwick Airport wearing a Levi Strauss T-shirt bearing the phrase 'Freedom or Death', with a picture of a skeleton dressed in armour beneath, the only reaction he might reasonably have expected would be a compliment from a fellow dedicated follower of fashion.

But no, as the Mail on Sunday explains:

Security officers decided it was 'threatening' and told the father of two, who was travelling with his partner and two young children, to turn the T-shirt inside out.

The embarrassed 38-year-old soccer coach obliged, opting to cover the garment with a cardigan.

But he has accused the airport of being over-zealous and attacking civil liberties.

The airport has subsequently apologised, but in truth this story is so beset with irony it could have been made up. If the fact that the slogan reads 'Freedom or Death' wasn't enough cause for amusement; let's not forget that that it is also the title of a famous speech on liberty and justice in 1913 by fearsome freedom campaigner, Emmeline Pankhurst.

This incident is a sad example of the terrorism paranoia which increasingly affects every part of public life. T-shirt slogans do not imply malicious intent and the pathetic security officers involved should have known better.
After the intrusion and embarrassment of bodyscanning, one wonders how much more difficult airports can make leaving the country.

By Dylan Sharpe