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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

WATCH: Dominic Grieve QC MP speaks at ‘An Unwarranted Intrusion?’

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

An Unwarranted Intrusion?

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

Last night Big Brother Watch teamed up with The Centre for Policy Studies to host an event discussing the accumulation of entry powers by the state. 

Unwarranted Intrusion Research released by Big Brother Watch in December last year revealed that there are nearly 15,000 officers in local councils nationwide who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police officer escort. You can read the full report Barging In by clicking here. This report built upon the 2006 Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet Crossing the Threshold by Harry Snook, which detailed the number of ways the State can enter a private home as of right.

To debate the power of entry at last night's event - chaired by Jill Kirby, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies - were:

• Dominic Grieve QC MP – Shadow Secretary of State for Justice
• Henry Porter – Novelist and Columnist
• Harry Snook – Author, Crossing the Threshold
• Alex Deane – Director, Big Brother Watch

We will be posting videos of each of the speeches from the event throughout the day and I would urge you to watch all four speakers. Each clip offers tremendous insights into the speaker's expertise and serve as a fantastic analysis of the erosion of liberty and how the current government has intruded into the public and private sphere.

Perhaps the most important development from the event, however, was Dominic Grieve's commitment to two key policies for a Conservative Government:

- The first was his announcement that he would like to see it compulsory for any state inspector to have to apply for a warrant from a JP before exercising power of entry.

- The second was his desire to introduce a 'Repeal Act' to get rid of some of the ridiculous and inappropriate legislation that permits state inspectors to enter our homes.

These two policy commitments from the Shadow Minister for Justice are absolutely critical if a Conservative Government is to restrict the power of the state over our private space. Big Brother Watch intends to keep a close eye on the progression of these commitments and will be ready to hold Dominic Grieve to account should the Tories win the next election. 

The videos of the speeches will be posted shortly.

By Dylan Sharpe

Calling all chemists… (and physicists!)

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

Help wanted If you are

a) sympathetic to the aims of Big Brother Watch, and

b) a chemist or physicist, and

c) would be in a position to give us some pointers on body scanners or trace swab kits

Then Big Brother Watch would really like to hear from you.

By Alex Deane

‘Comprehensive’ CCTV system fails to capture shocking incident

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

CCTVfacingwall It has been revealed that a CCTV system in Teeside, described as 'comprehensive' by the local council, has been unable to capture a single image of the moments a local engineer was struck, crushed and crippled in a car crash.

As reported by the Gazette:

Teesside Crown Court heard that cameras were broken or facing the wrong way at the time of an alleged murderous attack on Kevin Harland.

The Crown say the ex-boxer was viciously assaulted, with a taxi driven into him then a sword-like weapon used to slash or stab his legs. Four men deny taking part in a plan to harm, injure or kill Mr Harland by running him over.

A statement of facts regarding CCTV was read to the jury yesterday. It said: “The police have not recovered any CCTV footage that captures any of the event on CCTV.”

The company that runs the CCTV cameras in the area have the slogan: “Any camera, anywhere, anytime.” Not, it would seem, in this case.

To put this event in context, the council controlling these cameras is Redcar and Cleveland. From the mid-90s until recently the council spent over £3 million on its CCTV network. In 2003, Judge Peter Fox, QC, who was working at Teeside County Court, called into a local radio programme during a debate on the latest £160,000 network expansion, to say the following:

"Whether it is street CCTV or shops or service stations the footage is almost always so poor as to be useless. Valuable resources are being wasted by police and lawyers. Cases are costing enormous sums of money poring over the footage which turns out to be completely useless."

Judge Fox is spot on. But hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on cameras and equipment later, Mr Harland is the one left counting the cost.  

By Dylan Sharpe

The fight against Body Scanners continues

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 5 Comments

Body scan blurred face The Government has insisted that body scanners are to be compulsory for those selected at "random" to go through them, regardless of health concerns and moral or religious concerns (and, indeed, whether they work). Over at Flesh and Stone, Kathlyn Stone has written a good extended piece on the state of play with scanners in the USA.

I've pointed out before that the "Christmas Bomber" was able to board his flight because of systemic failure to use information the security services already had – that law enforcement needs to use the powers and information they've already got, rather than take on a whole new set of expensive, invasive powers in addition to them. Stone points this out in the US context vis a vis the $43 billion Department for Homeland Security getting more funds for 300 body scanners -

in a move that is starting to feel familiar, the government is throwing more money at the department that was created to prevent the sort of incompetence that it just displayed. 

On the privacy front, she writes:

the scans are more revealing than Janet Napolitano, the current Homeland Security chief, and Michael Chertoff, the first security czar who pushed for them, are letting on. The images are high resolution and crisp enough to reveal genitalia.

If you’re a vain person that travels a lot, you might want to start that diet and fitness program today because Transportation Security Administration staff are going to see you without your clothes on. On the other hand, if you look like you might have rolls of midriff fat, saggy breasts and small reproductive organs it might win you a pass-through wave by TSA staff. Not so fast if you’re a shapely woman or a buff-looking man.

Currently, U.S. citizens can opt-out of the scan and instead “receive an equal level of screening and undergo a pat-down procedure,” according to TSA’s website. What, exactly, is this alternative screening that’s on “an equal level” with being viewed without your clothes on?

I note of course that this is an option that we in the UK don't have.

Good piece. Check it out.

By Alex Deane

DNA from babies given to the US military

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 1 Comment

Babies We're constantly reassured that DNA samples taken by the state are secure and safe – nothing to see here, move on, don't cause a fuss.

Well, would you cause a fuss if you were the parent of one of the 800 newborn babies in Texas whose blood samples were sent to the U.S. military?

Supposedly, it wasn't for military use, oh no – it was for potential
use in a database for law enforcement purposes

Well, that's OK then.

And, in the winner of the weekly "well isn't that rather the point" award, when asked why the State's government had kept the programme a secret, Carrie Williams, a health department spokeswoman, said

"We don't publicize every agency initiative or
contract, and obviously this is a sensitive topic."

By Alex Deane

Out of the darkness, and into the… oh, dear.

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

Street light Q: You've heard that darkness can severely hamper CCTV coverage. What else can do so?

A: Light.

At least, it's so for CCTV in Sussex. As told over at the Argus

Glare from lamps is causing such poor picture quality that individuals
filmed committing a crime cannot be identified.

By Alex Deane

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

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