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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

Photographer films his own wrongful arrest

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

Photography forbidden Dylan has written before about the absurd use of anti-terror powers to interfere with the activities of photographers (and I was interviewed on the subject before Christmas) which has led to a number of protests. The Guardian had a further piece on this front over the weekend, and the story there is complete with footage of the (unsurprisingly unimpressive, self-important, overbearing) police behaviour in stopping a law-abiding amateur photographer doing precisely nothing wrong. The page is also adorned with footage from other such photographer-bothering incidents.

We want to trust the police. We all want to feel that the police are on our side, on the side of law-abiding people and against criminals. Increasingly, polling – and the experiences we all have from day to day – show that the public does not feel like that. For my part, I increasingly feel that they pursue a political agenda and persecute normal people in order to meet objectively unimportant targets. Stories like this one reinforce that.

Take a look at the footage and read the account given by the – well, it's not going too far to say the "victims", is it? You can plainly see that the officers had to think for a while before drafting in a more senior officer who came up with the idea of using powers against "antisocial" behaviour to coerce the photographers to give their names (really nothing more than a cheap way around ruling against stop
and search without just cause
). When one quite rightly refused, he got to spend eight hours in custody – for no proper reason.

This is why the fight being fought by photographers, whilst important for freedom in and of itself, also has much wider implications for all of us in our relationship with the state. Because what this really adds up to is, "I don't like you, sunshine – you think you can assert your rights and walk away from me without justifying yourself to me – well, you can't."

I don't want to live in a country in which a policeman can stop you in the street and demand "your papers" without due cause.

Do you?

By Alex Deane

Council admits ContactPoint is “not stable”

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases | Leave a comment

Kids-computer The Daily Telegraph have used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal that Surrey County Council, one of the local authorities currently testing the ContactPoint database, have found it unsafe, unwieldy and unfit for purpose. 

ContactPoint is the government's £224 million plan to database every child under the age of 18, their parents, teachers and doctors. It has run into trouble before, but the latest documents are even more damning.

As the Telegraph report:

A series of internal documents and emails from Surrey County Council show, for the first time, the concern that has been privately expressed by officials about the database.

One official, whose details were blacked out, reported to a supervisor: “It has been a frustrating time recently which recently culminated in a breach of the system.

“The system they are accessing is not stable, it took 15 minutes for John to get into it this morning.

“The process is not user friendly. Data is an issue locally, a lot of it doesn’t match up, especially addresses. There are also issues around what needs recording for each agency to get consistency.”

The breach was one of five the system, a single register where children’s contact details can be stored, has experienced before its official launch.

Massively expensive and cumbersome, the ContactPoint database was a bad idea from the start and with every document released from those trialing the system, the foolishness of this database is further revealed.

But the biggest concern is the security of the data. In 2008, Deloitte concluded that ContactPoint could never be completely secure. These latest breaches confirm that 2 year-old judgement.

By Dylan Sharpe   

Loppsi Offsi

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Mastering the Internet | 3 Comments

French_Flag In what may be one of the early skirmishes in the battle by governments to master the internet, the French are currently debating Loppsi II, a draft law to filter Internet traffic (amongst other things).

The bill was approved last week by the National Assembly (where the government has a large majority) and will now go on for a second and final reading in the Senate (where the government also has a majority). If the Senate makes no amendments that will be the final reading, as the government has declared the
bill "urgent," which reduces the usual cycle of four
readings to two.

The bill contains a number of unrelated measures:

  • boosting police spending on "security" increasing
  • penalties for counterfeiting
    checks or credit cards,
  • increasing CCTV
  • extending
    access to the police national DNA database
  • authorizing the seizure
    of vehicles driven without a license
  • criminalising
    online identity theft
  • allow police to tap Internet connections as well
    as phone lines
  • ordering ISPs to filter Internet connections to target child pornography

Plenty for our freedom-loving French friends to worry about, no? Let's hope les amis don't allow the rugby to distract them from this issue…

Vis a vis filtering, ISPs will be required to block access to any Internet address the
authorities consider "necessary to prevent distribution of child
pornography."

Blocking sites suspected of hosting child pornography is likely to
affect blameless sites at the same IP address. Opposition amendments -
that a judge would review the list of blocked URLs each month to ensure
that sites were not needlessly blocked, and to make the filters a
temporary measure until their effectiveness was proven – were rejected.

Of course, filtering won't stop the spread of child pornography – distributors already use encrypted peer-to-peer
systems. Indeed, the French Federation of Telecommunications has said that filtering would cost up to €140 million but would be largely ineffective against the main child pornography distribution channels.

Once installed, the filter system could be used to censor other materials or limit access to other Internet sites. Which appeals to President Sarkozy – in a speech in January, he said that authorities should experiment with filtering in order to automatically remove all forms of piracy from the Internet.

Zut alors!

By Alex Deane

The Rule of Law

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

225px-Bingham_of_Cornhill Former Senior Law Lord Tom Bingham has written a very interesting new book, The Rule of Law, which touches on many issues of interest to Big Brother Watch supporters.

Two interesting reviews caught my eye – one by Chris Patten in the Financial Times and one by Jonathan Sumption in The Spectator.

Patton says:

Among many authorities quoted by Bingham on the malign stupidity of
infringing civil liberties in the name of the “war on terror”, the 1987
remarks of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan strike home with
particular force: “After each perceived security crisis ended, the
United States has remorsefully realised that the abrogation of civil
liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself
from repeating the error when the next crisis comes along.”

(Emphasis added.)

Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it… and so we have demonstrated the truth of this observation in the post-9/11 age. (I was trying to make this point last week.)

Sumption makes a similar point;

Within a year of the [European] Convention coming into force, the destruction of
the World Trade Center, followed later by controversial wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq, inaugurated a period of highly authoritarian
legislation, abrogating rights which had been taken for granted for
centuries. As is the way with powers conferred on officials and
policemen, they tended to be exercised 150 per cent.

To those of us with concerns about leaping from the frying pan of government dictatorship and into the fire of the rule of krytocracy, he has this observation to balance that, too;

Tom Bingham is best known for his vindication of human rights and the
rule of law against the excesses of legislative and governmental action.
Yet, the interesting thing about this very English judicial figure is
that he has never been an instinctive opponent of executive power. His
views about the relations between the state and the citizen were
conceived in the long tradition of judicial pragmatism. One of the
consistent themes of his judgments is the legitimacy of the state’s
traditional role in protecting the interests of its citizens, provided
that its acts are rational and proportionate. Like the other outstanding
judicial figure of the passing generation, Lord Hoffmann, he has shown a
great deal more understanding than some of the more activist judges of
the proper place of the judiciary, the legitimate domain of political
decision-making, and the constitutional role of ministers in a democracy
who are answerable (unlike judges) to Parliament and ultimately the
electorate.

We ought to remember this as we push our Government to restore our historic liberties and freedoms – the last thing we would want, if successful in restoring proper limits to governmental power, is domination by unaccountable judges instead.

Feel free to post links to further reviews in the comments along with your own thoughts on the book and the questions it raises.

By Alex Deane

DNA database agency breaks the hearts of “sisters”

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

Dna_500 In the context of the legal world, I've written about the problems with DNA evidence before. Over at the Mail, a sad story about donor-conceived children – about false hopes, technological errors and a DNA database.

Two women recently became the first British children of an anonymous sperm donor to meet face-to-face – or so they thought.

K, who now lives in Perth, Western Australia, and E, from Cambridge here in the UK, had been among the first to register with UK Donor Link, a Government-funded database set up in 2004 – and they were brought together as the "poster children" of a reunification programme run by DNA analysis.

The problem was that the scientists were wrong:

In a terrible and distressing mistake, UKDL brought two entirely unrelated women together and told them they were sisters.

The Mail says that, unsurprisingly,

E and K, who are both 37, are deeply distressed by the development.

E did not want to discuss the revelation but K is so appalled at what she considers the unprofessional and unethical behaviour of UKDL that she is considering suing the organisation.

To summarise – supposedly basic DNA question using existing (not pioneering) technology; high-profile situation, with the provider incentivised to get it right given the publicity – and they still got it wrong.

As the Mail puts it, it's a mistake that "casts new doubt on DNA profiling" per se. And this story breaks alongside the news that researchers intend to build an online DNA database.

Oh, good.

By Alex Deane

Another step towards airborne spy drones

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

Surveillance drones have been hitting the headlines in recent weeks. First we reported on the news that the police were planning to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly seen in Afghanistan, for the "routine monitoring" of antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers.

Spy drone Then, in the space of a few days, Merseyside Police used a remote-controlled flying CCTV machine with thermal imaging technology to capture a fleeing burglar; only to be charged by the Civil Aviation Authority 48 hours later for flying the device in a residential area without permission.

Now, from the Sunday Telegraph comes the news that the European Defence Agency has hired aerospace and defence group EADS to research how communication via satellites can be used "for the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into European airspace."

As they report:

Drones are of interest to the military and the police as surveillance tools, and could be used by immigration authorities for patrolling Britain's coastline. But concerns have been raised because the UK is already one of the most "watched" countries in Europe, with the proliferation of CCTV cameras.

The Army will start using the smaller Watchkeeper drone, built in Leicester by French defence company Thales, later this year. It is understood the Army will start testing Watchkeeper in the next few weeks, at Aberporth in west Wales, Britain's only licensed site for UAV flights. The Army hopes to get permission to fly them over training grounds in Salisbury Plain and Sennybridge in South Wales.

The MoD said it shares information with the European Defence Agency but is not directly involved in the research with EADS. The military is currently bound by the same restrictions on drones as civil operators, and can only test in restricted areas with the permission of the CAA.

This is a very worrying development. We are already watched by more CCTV cameras than any other country on earth without the state surveillance network expanding into the skies above us.

What is of most concern is that the privacy aspect is being completely ignored. The problem, it seems, is that the CAA thinks UAVs are dangerous because they have no pilot; yet no-one is asking whether these drones are actually necessary or a dangerously intrusive next-step on the road to a surveillance state?

There is more yet to come on spy drones, and we intend to keep you updated as and when it appears.

By Dylan Sharpe

Waving a hammer lands woman in court

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 5 Comments

Woman hammer …and the taxpayer with a £20,000 bill.

As reported in the Daily Telegraph:

Beryl Welch, 61, was charged with affray after scolding four scouts aged 11 to 13 who were clambering up trees at a scout camp next to her garden in Cosgrove, Bucks.

After her pleas were ignored and fearing the trees were being vandalised, she got a claw hammer from her house and angrily waved it at the youngsters. 

But following a two-day trial, a jury of six men and six women cleared Mrs Welch of affray and found her guilty of the lesser charge of threatening behaviour.

Judge Charles Wide QC gave Mrs Welch a 12-month conditional discharge and criticised the prosecution and the CPS for bringing the case to trial.

He said: ''To have the Crown Court and the taxpayer dealing with a case like this is quite beyond me.

''How could anyone have thought it appropriate to charge affray in a case like this? How could anyone have thought a jury trial was appropriate, whether or not a woman threatened a scout with a hammer?"

It is no surprise that the court has thrown this case out. This woman is not a criminal and should never have been treated like one.

Waving the hammer was a mistake; but the time and money spent on this case, as well as the anguish no doubt felt by the woman involved, are a sad indictment of our legal system.

By Dylan Sharpe

Pope decries introduction of airport body scanners

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 1 Comment

Scan devilAlex has written extensively on the cost, legality, functionality and inherent invasion of privacy that are part and parcel of body scanners and gleefully we can today report that the Pope has spoken out against the use of the unscrupulous devices.

Addressing an audience with aerospace industry employees, Pope Benedict's appeal 'to protect and value the human person' has been widely interpreted as a reference to the fast expanding intrusive technology. His comments come as a timely incursion with the radiant potential to accentuate the importance of protecting our basic civil liberties. Big Brother Watch hopes that the speech will increase public awareness of, and opposition to, these wholly unethical machines. After all, it's nice to have God on our side…

A plethora of arguments can be used against body scanners but few are more apt than a statement made later in his address:

the primary asset to be safeguarded and treasured is the person, in his or her integrity

Amen.

By James Stannard

Full footage from the Livingstone interview – “The Assault on Liberty”

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

Press TV As we mentioned before, Alex was interviewed by Ken Livingstone recently about Dominic Raab's book The Assault on Liberty. All three parts of that extended interview are now online:

Part one

Part two

Part three

Europe to the rescue – again

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

Eu A nudge from a supporter reminds me that I have failed to comment on an important development in Europe about our sharing the private data of people in the EU with authorities in the USA.

The European Parliament recently rejected an agreement with the United States on sharing bank data, effectively snubbing appeals from Washington for help in counter-terrorism investigations.

A nine-month interim agreement with the USA to share data went into force provisionally at the start of the month, but some in the EU Parliament opposed it on the grounds that it failed to protect the privacy of EU citizens and Washington will now have to seek other ways to access information on money transfers in Europe.

This is great news. Details of our financial transactions are private and should never be shared with other countries. Finally someone is standing up to the disproportionate invasions of privacy and freedom which bureaucrats try to justify in the name of counter-terrorism.

I also note that this is not the first occasion in recent times that British people have been dependant on Europe to defend our liberties. The British government and courts were wrong on defendants being convicted on the evidence of absent witnesses, and the European Court was right. The British government and courts were wrong on the retention of DNA samples from innocent people, and the European Court was right. The British government and courts were wrong on random stop and search, and the European Court was right.

I for one despair of us being dependent on a Court and a Parliament which have grown from a very different jurisprudential and cultural tradition to protect our rights, and for those with a sense of British liberty and freedom it feels rather shameful, doesn't it?

By Alex Deane

Hat tip: SS