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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

A presumption of future possible guiltyishness

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 8 Comments

Today the Home Affairs Select Committee heard evidence on the retention of innocent DNA samples from Sir Alec Jeffreys - the man who developed techniques for DNA fingerprinting and DNA profiling which are now used all over the world.

Professor-Sir-Alec-Jeffreys While Big Brother Watch could sadly not be there, the tireless Lobbydog - a prolific blogger of Westminster gossip – has provided a brief transcript of the key exchanges that I felt were worth sharing on our blog.

As reported by Lobbydog:

“If my DNA were to be put on the database I would object profoundly against that,” said Sir Alec Jeffreys at a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee.

“What advantage is it to me, as an entirely blameless citizen? The best outcome is that my DNA would sit there cluttering up a fridge and that my DNA profile would sit there cluttering up the database.

“The worst that could happen is that 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 repercussions.”

Crucially, Sir Alec finished by saying that if he’d known his DNA analysis would be used by the Government in the way it has, he’d have been “astonished, perplexed and deeply worried”.

“I’ve always understood that one of the great foundations of English law was a presumption of innocence, but obviously now there is a presumption of future possible guiltyishness,” he said.

He makes several other excellent points against why innocent DNA should be removed from the database (including the increased likelihood of false matches between family members – who share similar DNA profiles) – the full report really is a must read.

By Dylan Sharpe

Another state database is not the answer, Mike

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

Mike Freer, the former leader of Barnet council in north London and now Conservative candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, has an extended interview in the Guardian this morning.

Easycouncil As the self-styled "architect" of the easyCouncil approach to local government – whereby residents are asked to pay a flat-rate of council tax for the standard services provided by the authority, but have the option of paying extra tax for additional services – Mike has shown that he understands the need for efficiency, particularly in our current economic climate.

However, efficiency should never be gained by compromising values of privacy and freedom and building more state databases - values which his party leadership have frequently claimed are a priority – but he makes this very mistake in his interview, saying:

Other ideas in this vein include a "common database" on individuals that would prevent people being approached time and time again by "different arms of the state".  

This sounds ominously similar to the ideas of Sir David Varney, who urged government departments to focus on the ‘totality of the relationship with the citizen’, ‘identity management’ and creating ‘a single source of truth’ on the citizen.

Databases are not the answer to efficiency. They invariably either go wrong (and thus the data they spit out results in people being unfairly treated) or – as is particularly the case with state databases – some absent-minded civil servant leaves a laptop on the train or his briefcase in a coffee shop and the data falls into the wrong hands.

Sorry, but you need to go back to the easyDrawing-Board on this one, Mike. 

By Dylan Sharpe

Taxi drivers ordered to remove the Cross of St George from their cabs

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 7 Comments

English speaking driver Over at the Express, a really quite disgraceful story. Apparently, taxi passengers in Southampton had complained foreign drivers could not understand English. So a group of drivers put St George’s Cross stickers in their cars, bearing the slogan “English Speaking Driver”.

Southampton Council has called them racists, and said that they will remove their licences – i.e. their livelihoods – if they don't remove the signs.

As I said in the Express, I think that Southampton Council should leave these taxi drivers alone. Do they not have more important things to be dealing with than enforcing pointless rules and petty complaints?

If a driver put up a sign saying they spoke Urdu, French or German, this decision would never have been made.

What does the other side say? Ged Grebby, of Campaign group “Show Racism the Red Card”, says

I don’t have a problem with displaying the cross of St George but the ‘English speaking driver’ part is where it crosses the line into racism.

To show what total nonsense that is, let's try this with just one change:

I don’t have a problem with displaying the cross of St George but the ‘Telagu speaking driver’ part is where it crosses the line into racism.

Not only would nobody complain. I imagine it would be thought laudable and helpful by Grebby and her ilk, and any attempt to stop it would be opposed.

I'm left wondering – (1) how we ever let things get this far, when councils would intrude into the lives of residents in such an absurd way; (2) how anyone on said council could actually think that it was right to do so; (3) why some people in this country hate our own language and flag so much.

By Alex Deane

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear…

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 36 Comments


Hat-tip: an assiduous member of the public who, absent the creation of the Intercept Modernisation Programme, is currently able to remain anonymous

Body scanners latest – airports to defy government?

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

Newcastle-airport As reported this morning in The Northern Echo, Durham Tees Valley Airport and Newcastle Airport are yet to commit to installing full-body scanners; the paper describing the stand-off as putting the operators "on a collision course with the government".

As they write:

Earlier today, the department for transport ordered all airports to install them before the summer holiday season, stating they must be in place "in the coming months".

But there have been protests that the naked images produced breach privacy rules and even child pornography laws that ban the creation of indecent images of youngsters. A further consideration is the cost – between £80,000 and £100,000 for each scanner.

a spokesman for Peel Airports Group, which owns DTVA, said "We are awaiting clarification from the DfT over the potential use of body scanners and so are unable to comment as to whether Durham Tees Valley Airport will see such machines being installed."

In all likelihood, this measure will be rammed through without consultation and any regional airport threatening not to install the scanners will either be lent on, or have the cost supplemented by the DfT.

Nevertheless, it would be heartening to see the air travel industry take a stand on this issue.

By Dylan Sharpe

People shouldn’t have to choose between their dignity and their flight

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 16 Comments

Alex on BBC Breakfast 01.02.10 (3) Today the Transport Secretary, Lord Andrew Adonis, has told the House of Commons that it will be compulsory for those selected to undergo a full-body scan.

In his statement he says:

"If a passenger is selected for scanning, and declines, they will not be permitted to fly."

In response, Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, who was inteviewed about this very issue this morning on BBC Breakfast, said:

“People are understandably afraid of terrorism. But we didn’t allow the IRA to impede our freedoms or change our way of life, and we shouldn’t change now either.

“Those upset by the prospect of undergoing these scans shouldn’t be forced to choose between their dignity and their flight.

“What kind of a free society does the Government think it is “protecting”, when it invades our privacy like this?

“When we are forced to expose ourselves at the airport in order to go on holiday, the terrorists have won.”

Petals on a wet, black bough

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

So Ezra Pound described

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Well, thanks to modern technology you can now make out each and every face in remarkable detail – you simply have to look at this image from the Obama inauguration and see how you can zoom in…

By Alex Deane

Hat tip: JB

Your home may be your castle after all – as far as the police are concerned, at least

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

Door-kicked-in In an interesting and important judgment, the Divisional Court has allowed an appeal against a conviction for assaulting an officer in the course of the execution of his duty.

Briefly, shouting and screaming was heard from a house and, after seeing and speaking to the occupants, who were not harmed and did not wish to allow them in, officers forced entry into the property under section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which permits them to do so for the purpose

of saving life or limb or preventing serious damage to property

The court stated that the stress on seriousness demonstrated that

Parliament intended that the right of entry by force without any warrant should be limited to cases where there was an apprehension that something serious was otherwise likely to occur, or perhaps had occurred, within the house

A proposition with which I think we would all agree (the emphasis is added and is my own).

Absent such possibilities for immediate harm in the case in question, the court held that police were wrong to force their way into the home, so could not properly be said to be acting "in the course of the execution of their duties" - and that the conviction the householder received for headbutting and spitting on them when they came in was therefore a wrongful conviction.

The points I would seek to make is this. How can the (rightly) rigid culture of restriction on effecting entry without a warrant by constables be squared with the ease with which entry without a warrant can be effected by so many council officials?

By Alex Deane

TalkTalk CEO sticks two fingers up at Mandy

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

It was reported yesterday that Charles Dunstone, Chief Executive of Carphone Warehouse, said if the Digital Economy Bill is enacted he would be prepared to fight the Government in court.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he said:

he refused to send his customers who were suspected file-sharers warning letters about their supposed activity or disconnect them, even if these clauses of the bill became law.

He explained that he may choose instead to fight the Government in court, if his lobbying fails and that his company would “consider all its options” should these clauses in the Digital Economy Bill go through.

Dunstone360 Why the fuss? The Digital Economy bill is now close to the committee stage at the House of Lords, and aims to implement a government report called Digital Britain. Mr Dunstone also heads the ISP, TalkTalk – and under the Bill, all ISP’s will have a legal obligation to firstly warn those suspected of illegal filesharing – and if it persists, to disconnect them.

TalkTalk have launched a petition against the Bill called ‘DontDisconnectUs’ which now has nearly 32,000 signatures and has drawn praise from several quarters, not least from Stephen Fry. It must be said, Mr Dunstone’s stance is as bold as it is morally praiseworthy. Is it sustainable though? What are other ISP’s going to do?

In an earlier interview with the Daily Telegraph, Dunstone claimed that:

“we don't support copyright infringement in any way but we live in the real world and understand that no amount of policing and censorship will solve the problem.

“It doesn't matter how many websites are blocked, how many services are shut down or how many individuals are pursued, people will always find ways to access copyrighted content for free.”

Moving away from Dunstonian heroism, but not from the Bill itself: Francis Davey – a Barrister specialising in computer and internet law - wrote a piece for the Open Rights Group, warning that the Bill goes much further than seeking to implement provisions relating to copyright infringement.

The bill gives enormous powers – exercisable with no Parliamentary oversight – to the Secretary of State to require the disconnection of individuals' internet access for any reason. Not only is there no requirement for such disconnections to relate to a number of "strikes" there is no need for disconnection to be linked to infringement of copyright.

In short, if the Bill goes through, it would appear to grant Lord Mandelson massive powers to control and meddle with the internet usage of UK residents. Digital Britain, it would seem, has its emperor.

By Edward Hockings

Met signal change of tack on Section 44

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

Stopandsearch In an interview with the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, John Yates, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has suggested that it is time the police used more common sense methods of finding potential terrorists, as opposed to the indiscriminate methods of stop and search employed under Section 44.

Mr Yates admitted that while “profiling” was an “ugly and clumsy” term that had been mired in controversy it had to be utilised "in an intelligent manner".

The police chief said that stop and search powers have sometimes been used in a misguided way. Not every person can be treated as a threat and officers had to be more specific about those targeted – using “common sense” and “street-craft” to recognise suspicious behaviour.

He agreed that an “elderly white woman dressed in middle-class garb” was unlikely to be a terrorist – but added that there was no single profile of a terrorist and officers “could not focus on skin colour or religion”.

It is encouraging to see that the Met Police are finally recognising that Section 44 has done little to make Britain safer, and a lot to harm the relationship between the people and the police.
The simple fact remains: there have been no successful terrorism convictions resulting from Section 44.

Indiscriminate stop and search doesn't work and is an unnecessary invasion of privacy. The European Court has ruled it unnecessary and it is time the British police came into line.

By Dylan Sharpe