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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

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

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


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

Did a US school use webcams in laptops to spy on students at school and at home?

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

Spy computer This one needs to be taken with a good pinch of the proverbial for the time being as it's based on the hitherto unsubstantiated claims made by students seeking compensation, but a remarkable story – laptops issued to students by a Philadelphia high school have webcams which can apparently be covertly activated by the schools' administrators.

It is believed that said administrators have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the claimant's child was apparently disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence against him.

Here are the court papers filed by the claimants – they make quite remarkable reading.

If these claims are true, the ramifications for privacy everywhere are huge – and very bad.

By Alex Deane

Hat tip: Marchamont

School illegally fines parents for smoking students

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

A headteacher has bizarrely used the smoking ban to send fines to the parents of pupils caught smoking in the school playground.

School gates As reported today by the Evening Standard:

Margaret Peacock, head of Elliot School in Putney, wrongly claimed powers under the 2007 smoking ban to issue the £50 penalties.

Ms Peacock sent letters to the parents demanding the £50 and warned them that if they did not pay, the school's governors would face a £2,500 fine. In the letter, she wrote: “The law, which came into force on 1 July 2007, prohibits smoking on public property.

“Your child was part of a group of girls seen on CCTV who were involved in smoking on the school site and therefore a fixed penalty fine of £50 has been imposed.”

In what should be considered a victory for commonsense, Wandsworth local education authority has admitted the school was wrong and has demanded it refund the fines.

The children are damaging their health and shouldn't be smoking on school property, but equally the school had no right to start dishing out fines to their parents.

The school might need more money, but this is not the way to do it.

By Dylan Sharpe

Insult to injury – charging passengers for the privilege of going through body scanners..?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 4 Comments

Canadian_money Our Canadian friends are suffering from the blight of body scanners as much as we are. Over at the Calgary Herald, a perhaps predictable development – a furore over plans to charge passengers for the privilege of going through body scanners.

I have already outlined my objections to scanners on privacy and freedom grounds. But it may be that arguments on functionality, the health risks, costs and charges to passengers may be the things that kill them off.

By Alex Deane