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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

Mother fined for her toddler dropping a banana skin? That’ll be the council…

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 8 Comments

Banana Over at the Telegraph, a story which brings Vanessa Kelly's case to mind – Kirsty Allen, a mother in Grimsby, has been fined £50 for her toddler apparently dropping a banana skin from his pram.

Jobsworth wardens should never be given powers like this – Kirsty Allen’s case demonstrates that they can’t use these powers responsibly or proportionately.

These powers are meant for people who behave wantonly, who do such things deliberately – they are supposed to be used with discretion and discrimination, with common sense. None of these things are true with this example.

We shall be in touch with Ms Allen and we will offer our assistance as we did with Vanessa.

The fine should be refunded and the council should apologise. And they should be ashamed of themselves for thinking it’s reasonable to fine a mother when her toddler inadvertently drops a banana skin.

By Alex Deane

CCTV gets installed, crime goes…up

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

CCTV2-50 Two months ago Oxford City Council spent over £25,000 installing a CCTV system outside a row of shops popular with local gangs. Problem solved, right?

As reported by the Oxford Mail:

Figures released by Thames Valley Police show that since the £26,000 cameras were put in place, the number of reported incidents in Blackbird Leys Road has risen by 33 per cent.

Oxford City Council switched on the two 360-degree cameras outside the ‘top shops’ in Blackbird Leys Road, and outside the Spar shop in Dunnock Way, Greater Leys, on December 15.

The installation of cameras had been talked about for more than 20 years as both areas have long been areas where gangs of youths gather.

The force said it was too early to see the full benefits of the investment.

Au contraire, Thames Valley. The benefits are made only too obvious by their complete absence.

Sgt Rob Axe - the local community policeman - said he believed that the cameras would prove their worth during the summer, when more people were out on the streets.

However, the owner of the newsagents covered by the CCTV seemed less sure:

Mr Russell-Gray said: “It might have an impact in the summer, but the trees might block the camera when it grows to full leaf — they need to go if the cameras are going to work properly.”

CCTV: 20 years in deliberation. £26,000 in cost. Negative impact on crime.

By Dylan Sharpe

Criminalising charity and volunteerism

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 5 Comments

WI_logo Due to our relocation last week, we neglected to mention this sad story taken from the Daily Mail on Friday.

A group of Women's Institute members have been threatened with £80 fines for handing out flyers for a charity art exhibition.

Grandmother Liz Day, 68, was confronted by a council litter warden who warned her and three other WI members it was illegal to hand out the charity adverts.

The women were told they narrowly escaped an on-the-spot fixed penalty notice because the East Hertfordshire Council warden was in a ‘good mood’.

Now the Sawbridgeworth Evening Women's Institute must secure a licence from the council to legally hand flyers to passers-by.

The gradual criminalisation of volunteerism must be counted among the saddest and most corrosive effects of the Big Brother State.

From preventing mums and dads from helping their local school with sports day because they aren’t CRB checked; to stopping charity games and record attempts because they infringe health and safety laws; it is possible to claim that those in authority have done more to prevent charity than they have done to encourage it.

Last year the WI charity art exhibition in Sawbridgeworth raised £500 for an air ambulance. Most will agree that the Council should forgive a little littering for the wider benefit.

But when there’s money to made for the Council…

By Dylan Sharpe

Guaranteeing freedoms and liberties for people you don’t like is essential if you want them yourself

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 8 Comments

Gavel The Telegraph's Con Coughlin wrote a piece last week in which he stated that when British judges upheld the rule of law in the Binyam Mohammed case, they revealed that they were Taliban sympathisers and would be equally to blame with Osama Bin Laden if London is bombed again (if you look at his article, you will see that I am not exaggerating). I wrote a response on Conservative Home, in which I thought you might be interested.

The exchange between us provoked responses in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and a further piece from Coughlin himself.

Suffice it to say, I stand by the position I've already expressed – that

I want us to defend a society in which we believe in innocence until proven guilty, freedom of speech, even for those with whom we disagree, and, perhaps controversially to your mind, not torturing people…

For these purposes, I don't care if he was serving with the Taliban. That service against our country would mean many things, including rendering him a legitimate target for warfare in the theatre of war, but it does not render him a legitimate target for torture, because nobody is. There are certain things that no civilised state should do, no matter how severe the provocation. Torture is one of them. It is the lot of free societies to fight with one hand tied behind our backs against the thugs who oppose our values. These are the values which make us different from them and giving them up grants them victory even as you torture them. For this reason, if we caught him we shouldn't even torture someone like Osama Bin Laden, let alone someone released without charge after several years of imprisonment.

And that's the point, isn't it? Mohamed hasn't been convicted of anything. Coughlin keeps questioning the account Mohamed has given of his time in Afghanistan, as if the "Con Coughlin reckons you done it" standard ought to apply in the justice system rather than the rule of law and the presumption of innocence.

I learned in my time at the Bar that it is precisely when the odds are stacked against a defendant that he most needs the benefit of a fair justice system – that it is when the evidence is apparently strongest that the rule of law is most important. Megarry J said in John v Rees [1970] that the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases whcih, somehow, were not; of unnswerable charges which, in the event, were completely answered; of inexplicable conduct which was fully explained… Coughlin is not interested in those notions – of testing evidence by due process, of a fair trial acting as a buffer between the wrath of the people and the individual. He wants to have his cake and eat it – to avoid any opportunity for Mohamed to present his defence properly in a court of law, and still say that he is certain of his guilt. It is important to point out what Coughlin is for when he is against fair trial. It is not hyperbolic, but accurate, to say that Coughlin's is an argument for the rule of the mob.

Coughlin goes on to insist in his response piece that he believes in a fair trial for "innocent people". Which rather defeats the point to my mind. I believe that suspected and indeed guilty terrorists should receive fair trials. I believe that they should receive exactly the same legal treatment as thee and me. I accept that these are difficult issues, and that there is a threat posed to us and our way of life by Al Qaeda, but I believe that it is precisely when it is hard to live by our principles that we should adhere to them – that these are the tests for which they were intended, and that it they were solely for good and easy times then they plainly weren't worth much after all (and in any case, as I have argued elsewhere, that threat is objectively less than that posed by the IRA in the past and certainly fails to justify changing our liberties and freedoms to anything like the degree seen in the UK).

The only way that habeas corpus, trial by jury, freedom from torture and so on are guaranteed for you is to insist that any and everyone in the United Kingdom gets exactly the same treatment that we would expect to receive ourselves. As soon as the powers that be are allowed to select who gets these rights, as soon as they are not rights but privileges, then we’re due for a recital of First, they came

Postscript: You'll see that Coughlin, attacked by others since, has mounted yet another defence of himself over at the Telegraph. Not waving, but drowning…

By Alex Deane

Council gives ok for police to conduct stop and search next to funeral

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

It beggars belief, but Hackney Council has somehow managed to give the ok for the Metropolitan Police to conduct a stop and search operation in a graveyard while a funeral was taking place.

Graveyard As reported by the BBC:

The Metropolitan Police and Hackney Council have apologised after 83 people were searched in a churchyard while a funeral was being held.

They were taken to a marquee put up in St John's Churchyard, in Hackney, after being arrested elsewhere as part of an operation targeting youth knife crime.

The council admitted it was wrong to allow the police operation to be held at the same time as the funeral.

In truth this is an unfortunate mix-up, and the police claim the operation was eventually a success, but once again we are left asking 'where is the commonsense?'

Surely the police, upon entering the graveyard, could have seen the funeral and re-located to a more suitable area?

Or is that asking too much…?

Surveillance drone grounded days after ‘success’

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

Spy drone Last Friday the papers were filled with Merseyside Police trumpeting the success of their airborne CCTV drone.

To avoid confusion, this little machine is not the unamanned drone (more commonly seen in Afghanistan) that we warned of last month, but instead a small, remote controlled helicopter-like device, operated by a policeman on the ground.

The force on Merseyside were overjoyed last week, because they had just made their first arrest using their new toy. The Daily Mail explained:

Using the device's on-board camera and thermal-imaging technology, the operator was able to pick up the suspect through his body heat and direct foot patrols to his location.

It led officers to a 16-year-old youth, who was hiding in bushes alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal, in Litherland, Merseyside.

The drone, which measures 3ft between the tips of its four carbon fibre rotor blades, uses unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology originally designed for military reconnaissance.

The battery-powered device can have a range of cameras attached to its main body, including CCTV surveillance or thermal imaging cameras.

As Big Brother Watch said at the time, while the enhanced ability to catch criminals is welcomed, there needs to be stringent, clear, and easily accessible guidelines about how and when these drones can be deployed.
People already feel that there is excessive surveillance in the UK without the police flying around CCTV cameras to catch us littering or parking in the wrong place.

But today, Merseyside have flown their little drone into a little more controversy. As reported in the Guardian:

…the attempt to claim credit for the UK's first arrest using a surveillance drone backfired tonight after it emerged the force itself could face prosecution because officers flew the surveillance aircraft without permission – a criminal offence.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates UK airspace, confirmed it was investigating Merseyside police over the apparently unauthorised use of its drone to pursue the 16-year-old after he fled from a suspected stolen car in Bootle.

This judgement is very welcome. In the words of Bruce Schneier, "It is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state" – there is little doubt that these CCTV drones would end up being used for the wrong purposes.

Privacy, excessive cost, or unauthorised use of airspace; Britain would be better off with fewer surveillance cameras.

By Dylan Sharpe

People of Wycombe: fight for your right not to be watched

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

Back in January, Alex wrote this blogpost praising Wycombe District Council for their approach to CCTV.

Cctv-camera We were particularly impressed with the Council's apparent willingness to hear the views of residents when it came to the dreaded one-eyed surveillance camera.

Well tonight is the night, and anyone in the Wycombe area should troop down to the main council chamber and voice their opinion on CCTV. Full details of the meeting are available here.

If you need any reason/ammunition for opposing the spread of CCTV, please do refer to the Big Brother Watch report into council-controlled surveillance: Big Brother Is Watching - available here.

Anyone who does attend, if you are keen to write a short summary of the event we would be very interested in taking a look at what happened and possibly hosting it on the site.

Wycombe: your fate awaits!

Big Brother Watch

Thrown off the bus for carrying a pot of paint

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

Paint-pot A story in the Daily Echo on Saturday, provided a great example of the current state of baffling health and safety regulations and nonsensical decision-making in Britain today.

As the BBC reports:

A bus driver told a passenger he could not board his vehicle because he was carrying a tin of fence paint.

Brian Wakley, from Sandford in Dorset, was 10 miles (16km) from home when told he could not board the 1B Bournemouth to Poole Transdev Yellow Buses service.

The retired office worker said he was told the £3.75 can of non-toxic green paint breached regulations.

The company said paint was banned from being carried on to its vehicles because it could cause a mess.

A mess…God forbid!

This bizarre decision - justified by the company's Head of Operations by saying "over the years we have experienced instances of paint being accidentally dropped by passengers and spilling over the floor" - flies in the face of reason.

Mr Wakley is a 67 year-old retiree, for whom the bus is his only means of travel. If this bus company's rules are open to the sort of interpretation that can leave a pensioner stranded miles from home, the rules need re-writing.

By Dylan Sharpe

We are moving

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

ManHouse From Monday, Big Brother Watch will be located at:

55 Tufton Street

Please make a note of our new address.

As a consequence of this move, our email server is currently down and we are not receiving any email messages.

Our new server should be up and running by the end of Monday and we will endeavour to respond to all emails received over the next few days.

Thank you for your patience.

Big Brother Watch

Demolish the myth that safety, in and of itself, is an absolute good

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Media coverage | 8 Comments

In arguing against airport body scanners, I've been met with variations on an increasingly prevalent fallacy: "if it makes us a little safer, it's worth it"; "if it saves one life, stops one crime…" What a specious argument that is. It would "save one child" to ban the car, but we don't, because it would be disproportionate and we have to get on with normal life, even if we incur a slightly higher element of risk in doing so. Safety, in and of itself, is not an absolute good.

Society would be a lot safer if we had a night curfew, or banned alcohol, or were forced to wear elbow and knee pads. We don't encourage people to take wild risks, but we don't make (many) liberty-reducing and disproportionate motor laws, either. We should react to the threat of terrorism in the same way.

It's peculiar, the hoops we've obediently jumped through since 9/11. Belts off, jackets off, shoes off, no liquids, no gels, hop on one leg, bear the officiousness of the power-happy bureaucrat with good humour. And now, expose yourself at the airport in order to fly, even though there are real questions about whether the scanners work. And perversely, given the safety first agenda, these £100,000 machines may be dangerous. The Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety (which includes the European Commission, the IAEA, and the WHO) says passengers should be made aware of the health risks of airport body screenings; that governments must explain any decision to expose the public to higher levels of cancer-causing radiation; and that pregnant women and children should not be subject to scanning – authoritative guidance the government ignores.

People are understandably afraid of terrorism. But we didn't allow the IRA to change our way of life to anything like the same degree. Jettisoning liberty in the face of what is objectively a much smaller risk is both wrong and entirely disproportionate – an understandable but foolish overreaction from a government desperate to be seen to be doing something. President Obama said that systemic failures in sharing information already held by the security services allowed the "Christmas Bomber" to get on the Detroit flight. It's not some new, magic solution that's needed; just competent use of the current ones.

Alex Deane is director of Big Brother Watch

This article is reproduced from today's edition of the Independent