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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

Sniffing out our next piece of unique biometric data

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

Face-recognition DNA, irides, fingerprints…the number of unique identifying characteristics that we possess, and that the state wants to get hold of, is high and climbing all the time.

The latest piece of biometric data that you need to worry about keeping secure has been staring back at you from the mirror for some time and, it could be said, is as clear as the nose on your face. 

The BBC explains:

We already have iris and fingerprint scanning but noses could be an even better method of identification, says a study from the University of Bath, UK.

The researchers scanned noses in 3D and characterised them by tip, ridge profile and the nasion, or area between the eyes.

Since they are hard to conceal, the study says, noses would work well for identification in covert surveillance.

The researchers say noses have been overlooked in the growing field of biometrics, studies into ways of identifying distinguishing traits in people.

Is it a matter of time before we find ourselves having to hand over our nose measurements when applying for passports? And will our friendly neighbourhood policeman soon be equipped with an NID – nasal identification device – to aid detection and prove our identity?

Probably not, but perhaps more pertinently, what is the driving force behind all these studies to harness biometric data? If it were purely scientific, I wouldn't be quite so concerned. It's the creeping fear that the government is trying to (in the words of Sir David Varney – permanent secretary at the Treasury) build a "single source of truth on the citizen" that worries.

By Dylan Sharpe

Smoking ban has its first martyr (and umpteenth victim)

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 17 Comments

No_smoking Nick Hogan, a former pub landlord, has become the first person to be jailed
in connection with the smoking ban. He was sentenced to six months in prison for
refusing to pay a fine imposed under the legislation.

As the Daily Mail reports it, he openly flouted the law and then refused to pay his fines and I accept of course that that's the ultimate recourse for people who refuse to pay fines. But it's a question of proportion.

During my time in the criminal justice system I regularly saw people with several or many previous convictions who, on being convicted of a further violent offence (or offences), were given shorter sentences than this (or, frequently, non-custodial sentences). This chap will find himself in prison alongside hardened criminals, for allowing grown adults to do as they wish, something which in some cases they have been doing for most of their lives, something which in most contexts is perfectly legal and, until recently, was perfectly legal in this context too.

Particularly at a time when so many pubs are closing, and prisons are rammed, is a six month sentence really appropriate, and/or a good use of custodial space?

By Alex

Coda 1: If you want to support Mr Hogan, go here.

Coda 2: for many people who have been smokers for decades, as a part of their relaxation after a hard day's work, whether it be in pubs, in bingo halls or in working men's clubs, smoking is an innate
part of their social life – the complete banning of this activity seems peculiarly cruel and thoughtless in relation to such people, don't you think? You might wish to visit here or here if so.

Tracked through mobile phone masts

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy | 22 Comments

A startling investigation by The Observer has revealed our government is behind a new project which could enable them to track us using our mobile phones.

Gps-mobile-phone-tracking As they reported yesterday:

The technology 'sees' the shapes made when radio waves emitted by mobile phone masts meet an obstruction. Signals bounced back by immobile objects, such as walls or trees, are filtered out by the receiver. This allows anything moving, such as cars or people, to be tracked. Previously, radar needed massive fixed equipment to work and transmissions from mobile phone masts were thought too weak to be useful.

The system works wherever a mobile phone can pick up a signal. By using receivers attached to mobile phone masts, users of the new technology could focus in on areas hundreds of miles away and bring up a display showing any moving vehicles and people.

An individual with one type of receiver, a portable unit little bigger than a laptop computer, could even use it as a 'personal radar' covering the area around the user. Researchers are working to give the new equipment 'X-ray vision' – the capability to 'see' through walls and look into people's homes.

Ministry of Defence officials are hoping to introduce the system as soon as resources allow. Police and security services are known to be interested in a variety of possible surveillance applications. The researchers themselves say the system, known as Celldar, is aimed at anti-terrorism defence, security and road traffic management. 

It's the same familiar triumvirate – terrorists, 'public safety' and drivers. How many of our freedoms and liberties have been curtailed out of concern with these three issues? If something can be done, the government tends to think it ought to be done; regardless of the privacy implications.

This passage of the report was particularly scary: After a series of meetings with Roke Manor, a private research company in Romsey, Hants, MoD officials have started funding the multi-million pound project. Reports of the meetings are 'classified'.

So, the MOD are spending taxpayers' money, but won't tell us on what. Our state is secretly financing a project that could enable it to know where we are at all times.

Celldar – a nightmarish future that is no longer so far away.

By Dylan Sharpe

CRB Checks – wouldn’t it be easier to count those of us who don’t have to have one..?

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

Crb Isa

Q: How many people will have to be CRB checked in the first year of the new scheme?

A: 1.77 million

And that's the government's estimate, so it's safe to say it's a minimum…

By Alex Deane

Judge, Jury and database searcher

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | Leave a comment

Innocent until proven guilty, or innocent until your DNA partially matches? The Mail on Sunday has revealed that officers regularly trawl the National Database for possible profile matches when they hit a dead-end in their investigations:

Figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday show that detectives are ordering weekly searches of the DNA database for people with no immediate connection to any crime.

The searches are used when crime scene DNA samples produce no direct match on the system.

Investigators then trawl millions of other records looking for a partial match, which might indicate that the suspect is related to an innocent person on the system.

LeeWyatt When we are told that removing innocent DNA profiles is too time consuming, one has to wonder how much time is being wasted in the vain hope of turning up matches in familial DNA?

More to the point, what happens – as the godfather of DNA profiling Sir Alec Jeffreys said – if “there is some glitch in the
database that made a false match to my DNA profile and that brings me
into the frame of a criminal investigation which has very serious

Which is probably why Lee Wyatt from Dereham (right), who was arrested and charged with assault but cleared of any wrongdoing in his local court, has taken to walking around the town with a sandwich board to try and get his DNA back from Norfolk Constabulary.

We wish Lee the best of luck but we're not holding our breath…

By Dylan Sharpe

Government to disconnect entire families for alleged illegal downloading

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Mastering the Internet | 8 Comments

Florian-leppla Florian Leppla is a Campaigner with the Open Rights Group, a non-profit company working to defend freedom of expression, privacy, innovation, consumer rights
and creativity on the net.

The Digital Economy Bill, currently being debated in the House of Lords, would give the Government the power to disconnect people from the internet if copyright files are downloaded without permission. The Government, heavily lobbied by the music industry, seems convinced that's the way to stop illicit file sharing and downloading of music. What's certain is that entire families could be be disconnected if only one member (or lodger or guest) is accused of illegal downloading.

The bill doesn't acknowledge that account holder and infringer can be different people. That's the problem. The account holder will be liable for any infringement, whether he or she has infringed or not. That means that a whole family is punished because of the action of one person. This person can be anyone using their internet: a family member, a guest visiting, a lodger or a neighbour using their open wifi.

A lot of people need the internet for work or depend on if for their eduction. The Government has encouraged that and has pledged to connect citizens to the web, not disconnect them.

Gordon Brown said last year that "the internet is as vital as water and gas". Would he then consider cutting off people's water supply if their kids had shoplifted?

Disconnection is collective punishment. It is unacceptable. It is unfair and it is disproportionate.

What can you do?

1) Ask your MP to help remove the disconnection from the bill. Contact your MP now!

2) Write to your local paper and let people know that disconnection is wrong.

3) Sign up with the Open Rights Group to support our work.

The weaponisation of classical music

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

Mozart_portrait Over at Reason.com an interesting article by the ever-thoughtful Brendan O'Neill – How Britain is using classical music as a form of social control.

Of course, we all know about the use of Beethoven & friends to deter young people from spending time in train stations – the new story is the decision by schools to subject

badly behaved children to Mozart and others. In “special detentions,” the children are forced to endure two hours of classical music both as a relaxant… and as a deterrent against future bad behavior (apparently the number of disruptive pupils has fallen by 60 per cent since the detentions were introduced.)

… some of the children who have endured this Mozart authoritarianism now find classical music unbearable. As one critical commentator said, they will probably “go into adulthood associating great music—the most bewitchingly lovely sounds on Earth—with a punitive slap on the chops.” This is what passes for education in Britain today: teaching kids to think “Danger!” whenever they hear Mozart’s Requiem or some other piece of musical genius.

Sounds familiar? It should -

Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of an elite using high culture as a “punitive slap on the chops” for low youth has come true. In Burgess’s 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, famously filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, the unruly youngster Alex is subjected to “the Ludovico Technique” by the crazed authorities. Forced to take drugs that induce nausea and to watch graphically violent movies for two weeks, while simultaneously listening to Beethoven, Alex is slowly rewired and re-moulded. But he rebels, especially against the use of classical music as punishment.

Pleading with his therapists to turn the music off, he tells them that “Ludwig van” did nothing wrong, he “only made music.” He tells the doctors it’s a sin to turn him against Beethoven and take away his love of music. But they ignore him. At the end of it all, Alex is no longer able to listen to his favorite music without feeling distressed. A bit like that schoolboy in Derby who now sticks his fingers in his ears when he hears Mozart.

By Alex Deane

Taking your son’s picture? Really? Are you a paedophile?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 16 Comments

Childcatcher Kevin Geraghty-Shewan had taken four-year-old Ben to the Bridges
Shopping Centre in Sunderland and took a picture of him while they were out shopping. He was accused of being a paedophile and threatened with arrest.

He told Sky News:

I took the picture on my phone and suddenly this security guard came up and told me it wasn't allowed because I could be a paedophile.

He told the guard that Ben was his son, but the guard replied that he couldn't prove it. A few minutes later Geraghty-Shewan was accosted by a policeman, who must have been contacted by the centre. The officer demanded his name and address, asked what I was doing in Sunderland, and said he had the right to delete my pictures.

Naturally, being confronted with this nonsense, Geraghty-Shewan became annoyed and raised his voice, and the officer threatened him with arrest "for breach of the peace."

Both the security guard and the police officer in this case are examples of the absurd reaction many people exhibit when they see fathers with their children.

This country has a destructive obsession with paedophilia. It is harming both parenthood and childhood, and it acts as a magic watchword for petty bureaucrats using overbearing powers.

By Alex Deane

The CRB check is a poison in our society

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 17 Comments

The picture to the right of this text comes to me courtesy of the Freedom in Education blog. Each of those blue pins represents a case of someone with a completely clean CRB check committing child abuse.

CRB Map Please do click this link to take you to the actual version of the map and links to the original news stories. It is an astonishing, albeit very sad, piece of data-collection.

While you consider the map and the horrifying number of those pins, I bring you the following story from the Nursing Times:

Children have missed out on surgery because of “chaotic” Government regulations, medical professionals say.

The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) warned their members could not cover absences or work at different hospitals due to Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check restrictions.

Young patients either had to wait or travel long distances to see a surgeon at a different hospital, due to “overzealous” interpretations of the rules by NHS trusts and long delays in returning results, it said.

The RCS said medical staff with an enhanced CRB check should be allowed to work in any hospital, and pointed out the restrictions prevented trainee paediatricians from gaining experience in different areas.

Some trainee surgeons went through more than 10 separate checks in two years, according to the college president John Black.

How can this make sense? If the CRB check is supposed to protect children (and, as the map shows, it does a bloody awful job of it) why is it preventing them from being treated for illness and injury in the NHS?

On top of stopping authors reading to children and the slow destruction in after-school clubs and youth groups – because non-CRB checked parents can no longer volunteer their time – the CRB is now hurting young people in a far more direct way.

The CRB check is a nasty poison and it needs to be replaced urgently.

By Dylan Sharpe

“DNA’s Dirty Little Secret”: A forensic tool renowned for exonerating the innocent may actually be putting them in prison

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | Leave a comment

Washington Washington Monthly has used the notable "cold hit" case of John Puckett as a starting point for a remarkably significant, researched, extended piece on the use of DNA in court cases. An extract to show the quality:

Typically, law enforcement and prosecutors rely on FBI estimates for the rarity of a given DNA profile—a figure can be as remote as one in many trillions when investigators have all thirteen markers to work with. In Puckett’s case, where there were only five and a half markers available, the San Francisco crime lab put the figure at one in 1.1 million—still remote enough to erase any reasonable doubt of his guilt. The problem is that, according to most scientists, this statistic is only relevant when DNA material is used to link a crime directly to a suspect identified through eyewitness testimony or other evidence. In cases where a suspect is found by searching through large databases, the chances of accidentally hitting on the wrong person are orders of magnitude higher.

The reasons for this aren’t difficult to grasp: consider what happens when you take a DNA profile that has a rarity of one in a million and run it through a database that contains a million people; chances are you’ll get a coincidental match. Given this fact, the two leading scientific bodies that have studied the issue—the National Research Council and the FBI’s DNA advisory board—have recommended that law enforcement and prosecutors calculate the probability of a coincidental match differently in cold-hit cases. In particular, they recommend multiplying the FBI’s rarity statistic by the number of profiles in the database, to arrive at a figure known as the Database Match Probability. When this formula is applied to Puckett’s case (where a profile with a rarity of one in 1.1 million was run through a database of 338,000 offenders) the chances of a coincidental match climb to one in three.

Such coincidental matches are more than a theoretical possibility, as Chicago police can attest. In 2004, detectives investigating a string of robberies on the city’s North Side found some skin cells that the culprit had left behind at one crime scene, which contained six DNA markers. When they ran this profile against Illinois’s offender database, they found it matched a woman named Diane Myers. There was just one problem: when the burglaries in question were committed, Myers was already in jail, serving time on drug charges.

Indeed, the little information that has come to light about the actual rate of coincidental matches in offender databases suggests the chances of hitting on the wrong person may be even higher than the Database Match Probability suggests. In 2005… an Arizona state employee named Kathryn Troyer had run a series of tests on the state’s DNA database, which at the time included 65,000 profiles, and found multiple people with nine or more identical markers. If you believe the FBI’s rarity statistics, this was all but impossible—the chances of any two people in the general population sharing that many markers was supposed to be about one in 750 million, while the Database Match Probability for a nine-marker match in a system the size of Arizona’s is roughly one in 11,000. 

(Emphasis added.)

It's technical stuff admittedly, but that's just what convicts people for things they may not have done. If you're interested in this subject, the article is really a "must read".

The piece is also covered by the security consultant blogging as Mass
Private I
, who highlights the attempts of law enforcement to suppress
information about flaws in statistics rather than share it as they
should – which is significant, and terrible, as juries thinking the
numbers mean something very different to the truth can wind up
convicting the defendant.

This finds support in another useful piece about the Washington Monthly essay over at Rants
of a Public Defender
; after pointing out the significant shortcomings of legal defence teams in relation to DNA evidence, she rightly concludes,

They don't want us poking around too much and investigating the truth of
their scientific claims.  They don't want to do the hard work to get at
the right results; they just want the quick, dirty, and easy answers,
evidently without concern for whether those answers are the right ones. 
Once again, when science and law enforcement come together, scientific
integrity inevitably takes the back seat…

We have got to fight against the criminal justice system's reluctance to
get at the best evidence.  We have got to break the hold that DNA
evidence has over us.  Otherwise, we'll never get to the truth of it.

A selection of related posts – the DNA myth, wrongful arrest due to DNA, the "return my DNA" campaign, DNA madness, less than 1% of crimes solved with DNA, removal of samples from innocent people is random, DNA / PNC, DNA testing and employability, arrests just to get us on the database, and an extended and updated piece from me on Con Home.

By Alex Deane