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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

Body scanners – an expensive waste of time?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners | 2 Comments

Werner Gruber, an Austrian physics professor from the Institute for Experimental Physics in Vienna, has mounted a demonstration that strongly suggests that body scanners are completely worthless.

Werner Demo The good professor smuggled a metal knife, a detonator, and several bottles of explosive powder through the machine and as an added bonus he also managed to smuggle a large quantity of crystal explosives hidden under a plaster stuck to his body.

The government would have us believe that the total body scanner is the new wonder weapon in the fight against terrorism, but in the programme broadcast on the German television channel ZDF the professor smuggled his mini terrorist arsenal through without any problem – the only things picked up by the scanner were his studio microphone and a mobile telephone..!

The manufacturers amusingly claimed that the test was not valid as "things would be different at the airport."

The professor had admitted in advance that he was smuggling a knife and other material to give the testers – who watched the pictures produced by the scanner and tried to spot the smuggled items – a chance to find the kit, but they still failed.

I think this demonstrates the total pointlessness of the full-body scanners that are set to invade our privacy and humiliate passengers at our airports.

While children and families are being subjected to smirking staff with body scanning surveillance, everything these expensive machines should catch goes sailing through.

By Alex Deane

The Official Launch of Big Brother Watch

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Events | 3 Comments

As many reading this will be aware, Big Brother Watch has been up and running since mid-September 2009. Our creation was trailed in the Sunday Times and our first blogpost appeared on our newly-created website soon after. With three major pieces of research released and regular appearances in the media and on various civil liberties platforms, we thought it was about time we presented ourselves in front of the great and the good in Westminster.

Launch Invite On Monday night, the official launch of Big Brother Watch took place in the salubrious surroundings of Vanilla in Central London. Around 150 people from politics, the media, civil liberties and beyond attended, and judging by the comments on the night and in various blogs written afterwards (see here and here), it was a great success.

We were keen to use the event, not only to raise awareness and thank those who had already played a part in making Big Brother Watch a success, but also as a statement of intent about how we want to continue. As part of that aim, we were delighted to welcome our two special guest speakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

When it comes to defending civil liberties and our right to privacy and freedom in Britain, Tony Benn and David Davis MP can be considered among the most important and respected names in the country today. In the current political atmosphere in which principle is often ignored for ambition, both men have shown outstanding statesmanship in standing-up for what they believe and crossing the political divide to show solidarity with the right cause.

The speeches given by both at the event are below (we apologise in advance for the poor lighting) and a longer video of the event is now available on our YouTube channel. We hope you enjoy listening to their pearls of wisdom and continue to support Big Brother Watch!

By Dylan Sharpe

Massively pro-CCTV organisation slams report by massively anti-CCTV organisation for not being “balanced”. And in other news, here’s my cousin, Mr Kettle

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

Leaping into action, a mere month after the publication of our CCTV report, one Pauline Norstrom has written an article on behalf of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) to give her tuppenceworth. 

To be blunt, she did not like it one bit. Well, I expected something entirely different from Pauline, who is

the Director of Worldwide Marketing for CCTV specialist AD Group.

To get a sense of her perspective on this, here’s a helpful screen grab of her article, with some of their handy-around-the-heavily-surveilled-home products advertised to the right.

BSIA Screen grab
She says that

The very title of the campaign – Big Brother Watch – is a none too subtle clue to the approach it is taking.


Even a cursory glance at the document gives the game away

And the rest of the article shows that a cursory look is all she took.  She states that

Although the report does go on to say that Big Brother Watch is 'not opposed to CCTV per se', this is followed by a selection of quotes regarding CCTV which have obviously been selected to portray CCTV in the worst possible light, backed by instances where apparently CCTV images were not of sufficient quality or CCTV systems were not operational.

Look.  I’m not a Luddite.  Technology has a role to play in law enforcement.  We’re all happy when crime is solved by CCTV.  But as I’ve pointed out before, the enormous expense of installation, maintenance, monitoring and storage of the imagery produced by them represents money taken from a finite pot of funds available to law enforcement that cannot be used in other ways.   The sense of security gained from CCTV is frequently entirely false.  Cameras often don’t work.   When they do work, they're often not turned on.  When they do work, and are on, they’re often pointing the wrong way during the course of whatever incident is causing concern.  When they’re working, switched on and pointing the right way, footage is often “scrubbed” before an investigator requests it, because storage is expensive.  When the camera is working, switched on, pointing the right way and the footage hasn’t been scrubbed, the quality of the imagery is often so low as to be unusable for investigations and certainly not good enough for court identification purposes.

It is for these reasons that the Metropolitan Police Force estimates that for every thousand cameras in London, one crime per year is solved – neutral, third-party, balanced information that Pauline naturally ignores.  In a mutually exclusive, finite resources environment, the presence of those thousands of cameras on our streets means the absence of hundreds of actual police officers. 

When a camera has been placed in location X, law enforcement’s resources flow away from X and towards Y.  Often, as a result of this decision and the failures I've outlined here, a crime committed in X goes unsolved, with all the suffering and disappointment for victims that goes with that, because of the wholly false reliance that has been placed on those cameras.

All of those arguments are mounted without even a reference to privacy.  Efficacy alone is enough to show up the faults of our CCTV network, the biggest in the world.  But there are legitimate privacy concerns.  People do feel uncomfortable with the (in principle) permanent retention of the images of innocent people by the state, which ought to treat us as innocent citizen subjects, free to go about our business without let or hindrance unless and until we do something wrong, rather than treat us as perpetual suspects.  It’s a distortion of the primary aspects of our relationship with the state as free people to say otherwise. 

So Pauline’s argument falls down on both practical and principled grounds.  She stresses that some crime is solved by CCTV.  This is true.  But it ought not to be beyond the wit of someone in her position to consider the other side of that coin.  The millions of man-hours wasted on maintaining cameras and poring without benefit over masses of CCTV footage cannot be portrayed in a neat anecdote, but the inefficacy of law enforcement spending its time and money doing so ought to be apparent – and the logical result of that, that many cases might have been solved if proper policing had been used during those finite man-hours instead, ought to be considered too.

Because it suits her to, Pauline commits the simple fallacy of considering the merit of solving the specific, small number of crimes she says can be solved by CCTV footage (and the potential of solving those which remain unsolved), without weighing against that undoubted merit the harm that comes from constantly monitoring millions of people living in this country entitled to live without being suspected as criminals, from the surveillance of society en masse without end.  She tells us that these technologies have great utility for the police.  But that is to state the obvious.  I am sure that the expansion of these technologies even further, to the maximum degree possible, would indeed be “useful” to law enforcement.  When the state gathers more information about everyone, the solving of crimes obviously becomes easier.  But this isn’t a numbers game – it’s a question of the kind of country we want to live in.

To put it another way, her argument is effectively (1) this is useful to the police and (2) “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”.  Well, it would be “useful” to monitor all speeches by having a police presence at every public meeting.  If your event organisers have nothing to hide, they won’t mind that, will they?  And it would be “useful” to monitor all conversations by having a police presence at every dinner table.  If your family’s got nothing to hide, you won’t mind that, will you?

But despite all that, in a development that shocked us all, Pauline wasn’t convinced by the arguments in the report. So here are some more:

  • The decision to install CCTCV on our streets is taken by a few people on a local council, hitherto without any scrutiny.  The result is a haphazard series of patches of CCTV across the country, with wildly different coverage in different towns.  Portsmouth has 10 times more CCTV than Plymouth, although the latter has a slightly larger population.
  • The remarkably alarming "Internet Eyes" scheme offers the potential for more abuse as members of the public can spy on us through CCTV for rewards, or perhaps Pauline prefers to think of them as frequent spyer miles
  • Further intrusions are arriving in the future, with the first installation of CCTV cameras in private homes in Croydon 
  • Privately held cameras are driven by policing failure – members of the public have been forced to adopt the cost and effort of part of police work ourselves
  • CCTV often struggles to pick up much of anything at night
  • It is true that, when offered CCTV on its own, people generally want it (though not always – as recently shown in Wycombe) (and some have been switched off, as in Skipton).  But if offered the choice, people may choose more police on the beat instead, and might appreciate having a choice at all.  But that might not appeal to BSIA.

As I say, I’m aghast that the payroll vote is against us, but somehow I’ll sleep tonight. 

Actually, Pauline, how about a public debate on the issues..? You know where to find us

By Alex Deane

ANPR cameras are being used to target innocent motorists

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

Much of what Big Brother Watch does surrounds our observation that increasingly the law-abiding citizen is being targeted for punitive and spurious reasons by local councils, the police and our national government.

ANPRtruck Sometimes we are presented with newsworthy examples of this behaviour (see here and here) but rarely do we find concrete evidence that uncovers those in authority deliberately abusing their position.

As reported in a sensational piece in the Independent on Sunday:

Police are using controversial car-surveillance technology aimed at catching criminals and terrorists to target members of the public in order to meet government performance targets and raise revenue.

Police whistleblowers claim that intelligence stored on the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) database is "at least 30 per cent inaccurate", which has led to the wrongful arrest of innocent motorists and the seizure of their cars.

Big Brother Watch has already written about the worrying rise of ANPR cameras - surveillance cameras that cross-reference your number plate with police intelligence and data from the DVLA as you drive past. It seems our fears were justified:

Internal documents seen by the IoS suggest zealous use of the ANPR system by some officers in Hertfordshire Police, the lead force for developing ANPR strategies, led to a disturbing culture among its road policing teams.

The target culture has allegedly led to unethical practices during roadside stops, according to concerned police sources. Some officers, they say, trawl through drivers' personal data on police databases to find any reason to arrest. Alternatively, they "wind up" motorists who, in their frustration, become abusive and are then arrested for a public-order offence.

"In short, officers do not have a complete understanding of the law, use flawed databases to justify immediate seizures, fail to adequately research and evidence the basis of their belief and almost certainly knowingly seize vehicles just to satisfy service and personal performance targets," one said.

ANPR-cameras Whistleblowers also expressed concern that managers are "engineering" arrests to meet targets. Officers have been sent to re-arrest drivers fined for driving without insurance. Before cars can be released from the pound the driver has to apply for insurance. "[Officers were] checking with insurers if Mr Smith had declared his recent penalty," said one officer. "If the answer was 'no' they arrested him for obtaining insurance fraudulently."

These 'internal documents' seen by the IoS are simply incredible and deserve far wider recognition and full investigation. Having objected to ANPR previously on the grounds that it was yet another surveillance system in the UK, this report shows that not only is it intrusive – it is leading to false arrests and frankly unacceptable policing. 

In an election year we are very grateful for this timely piece of evidence and will be calling for a commitment to scrap ANPR cameras at the first opportunity from all the parties.

By Dylan Sharpe

More objections to the ugliness of CCTV

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

Hounslow_logo I've written before about how obtrusive CCTV poles can be, dominating and worsening our urban environment.  The most recent Hounslow Chronicle features complaints from a local councillor about their new CCTV installations:

Councillor Andrew Dakers believes they are "ugly" and "visually intrusive" and there should be another way found of installing the Community Safety Cameras.

"These are really chunky black poles and I don't know why they chose to use them instead of just putting the cameras on top of buildings."

They're obviously a talking point for people in the area, as the newspaper refers to the "mysterious black poles that have popped up along Hounslow High Street.." and their readership must be presumed to know what they mean.

Do you live or work in Hounslow?  Have you seen these things?  Might you be able to tell us what you think, or, even better, take a picture and send it in to us?

I should also point out that Hounslow is the same authority which has installed talking CCTV, buying themselves an intrusive tool at a cost of £1.8 million.

Perhaps, as other residents have done, given the cost and the unsightliness, the good people of Hounslow might wish to revisit the whole question of having more CCTV in the first place.

By Alex Deane

The danger of databases as ContactPoint rears its head once again

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

Keeping count of the number of state databases either currently in existence, or those that are being given the final touches in the back-rooms of a governmental department, can be considered a fine art.

Kids-computer The latest of these ill-fated projects to make the news for all the wrong reasons is ContactPoint: the infamous £224 million child protection database, holding files on an estimated 11 million children and set to provide access to over 390,000 teachers, police officers and social workers when complete. 

However, its planned launch has been put on hold for a third time after local authority staff discovered loopholes in the system designed to hide personal details of the most vulnerable young people – meaning that adopted children or those fleeing abusive homes could be tracked down.

As reported in the Daily Telegraph:

Over the past year, staff at England’s 150 main councils have been going through their records for vulnerable children – such as the offspring of high-profile parents or those fleeing abuse – whose details should be “shielded” for their safety.

In November the Government declared that a pilot phase involving 20 councils and charities had been a success, and that the project will be taken up nationally.

But there have been at least three security breaches so far, in London, Staffordshire and Surrey, according to details obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

One “serious” breach involved two staff at Westminster City Council, where many politicians and public figures live, losing details of children that had been originally stored in an envelope.

A Government review of the security of Contactpoint, which they refused to publish in full, found the risk of a data breach could never be eliminated. While surprisingly honest, the admission only adds to the feeling that compiling this enormous database is fraught with dangers that far outweigh the benefits.

It was only recently that the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust named ContactPoint among the 11 public sector databases that are "almost certainly illegal".

Given that legality is utterly beyond the database culture in government, one would like to think that safeguarding vulnerable children from further suffering would be a higher priority – apparently not.

By Edward Hockings

Guerrilla sticker picture of last week

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

We saw this photo sent in by prolific sticker guerrilla ZacS – can there be a more telling picture of our Big Brother State? - and thought we'd share it with you.

If you haven't taken a look at the gallery recently, the number of photos is rising weekly. And if you haven't got your stickers yet, just get in touch with an address and the number of stickers you want and we'll send them straight out, free of charge!

The chance to name, shame, and take a photo of our overbearing state awaits!

Big Brother Britain

Man arrested under terrorism act for Twitter joke

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 9 Comments

Last week a 26 year-old man, upon hearing that his local airport was closed due to snow and with a planned trip to Ireland just 8 days away, wrote the following 'tweet' to his followers on social-networking site Twitter:

"Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Twitter_1457340c While perhaps a little close to the mark under the current atmosphere of fear surrounding airport security (one that has, of course, prompted our dear leader into installing intrusive body scanners up and down the country), what happened next could only be described as a massive overreaction.

As reported in the Independent:

A week after posting the message on Twitter, Paul Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned for almost seven hours by detectives who interpreted his post as a security threat.

After he was released on bail, he was suspended from work pending an internal investigation, and has, he says, been banned from the Doncaster airport for life.

"I would never have thought, in a thousand years, that any of this would have happened because of a Twitter post," said Mr Chambers, 26. "I'm the most mild-mannered guy you could imagine."

Now, Big Brother Watch fully supports the use of intelligence and data to track-down those who would try and commit terrorism (as opposed to random stop and searches and invasive scanners etc). 

However it is pretty clear that a mid-20's, East Midlands-born man with no previous convictions, who posts an empty threat on a social networking site, is not announcing his next target so much as being slightly injudicious with his choice of words.

It is in times of hightened stress that our freedom and liberties are most sorely tested. In this case, it is fair to say that the police failed the test.

By Dylan Sharpe

Media Coverage – 18th January

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Media coverage | 3 Comments

_47016483_body_scanner2_466 BBC News – Body scanners risk right to privacy, says UK watchdog

Privacy campaigners welcomed the EHRC's move.

Dylan Sharpe, campaign director of Big Brother Watch, said the government had not considered privacy in its "desperation to be seen to be doing something".

"They are another intrusion into our privacy in the name of protection, yet we know that they are not fail-safe and could see airport authorities becoming reliant on a deeply flawed method of detection," he added.

Sky News – Watchdog Warns About Airport Body Scanners

Dylan Sharpe, campaign director of Big Brother Watch, added: "The EHRC is completely right to question the use of full-body scanners in airports. We know that they are not fail-safe and could see airport authorities becoming reliant on a deeply flawed method of detection.

Daily Telegraph – Airport body scanners could 'breach human rights'

Yorkshire Post – Minister challenged over airport scanners

To find out more about the airport full-body scanners, read our previous posts: Invasion of the full body scanners, and: Airport X-ray scanners pry a little further.

By Dylan Sharpe

Power2010 – Help make freedom and privacy a top issue

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 3 Comments

For those who haven't yet heard of Power2010 this is how they explain the campaign:

Power2010-logo Our plan is simple. We want to identify the five key reforms that will change the way we do politics in this country – and we want you to tell us what these should be.

Together we will ensure every candidate standing for election backs these reforms so that the next Parliament delivers the change we need.

These worthy, if perhaps optimistic, aims are set to provide an interesting case study into what the general public really cares about - as opposed to the political elite.

The final shortlist of 29 issues was decided at a recent convention and they are now available to view on the Power2010 website where the public can vote for their favourites over the next 5 weeks.

At present, scrapping ID cards and rolling back the database state stands at an impressive number 2 in the voting, which is very encouraging. It would be good to see reduce the use of statutory instruments (a tool by which some of the most intrusive and repressive legislation has been introduced to Britain in the past decade) and expanding the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (a suggestion from our friends at the TaxPayers' Alliance) also make the top 5.

By Dylan Sharpe