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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

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 

In the week it has been ruled unlawful…

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

…Sussex PCSO's issue two schoolboys with stop and search forms for damage they didn't cause.

Sledging 12 year-old Jacob Mogre and Charlie Stakim, 11, were about to start sledging down a hill in West Sussex, when, as explained by the Daily Mail:

…they were beckoned by two police community support officers (and) asked why they were not in school and then quizzed about damage to a nearby fence.

They politely told the officers they knew nothing about the fence, but instead of simply being allowed to carry on playing they were given an official ‘stop and search’ form which they had to sign themselves.

Their parents have now been told the youngsters’ details will now go on a police database.

There are three points to make from this story. The first is in reference to that final line – these are two innocent boys whose details should be immediately binned. They committed no offence and they should absolutely not be added to any database.

The second is that there was simply no need for the PCSOs to issue the 'stop and search' papers. Community policing should be about having friendly chats with the public. The police had no reason to suspect the boys other than the fact they were out sledging. So why not just ask without the paperwork?

Finally, it is cases like this which demonstrate why the ECHR's decision on section 44 needs to be taken up by the government as soon as possible. It is a deeply flawed method of solving or preventing crimes which, more often than not, targets innocent people completely unnecessarily.

By Dylan Sharpe

‘Web Cop’ to patrol internet for anti-police comments

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 35 Comments

Metro 'web officer' clipped Big Brother Watch completely missed this story when it appeared in the press last Friday (not altogether surprising given that it was given only minimal coverage in the Metro – see right – and Star), but apparently West Midlands Police are about to employ a full-time 'web cop'.

As explained by the Daily Star:

The officer will search for criticism of the police and use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Bebo to promote the force.

Assistant Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie told Police Review yesterday: “There will be someone on the web chatting about West Midlands Police right now, about whether they have had bad service or if they have heard a rumour about guns and gangs.”

He added: “A lot of chatter is ill-informed. We need to be much smarter about identifying these conversations so we can join in and influence what people think.”

How can this possibly be a good use of a policeman's time? The force will no doubt defend it by saying the 'web cop' will also look out for criminal activity online; but there are already more specific web-officers (e.g. in CEOP and the Fraud Squad) doing this on a case-by-case basis.

Two further points need to be made. Firstly, there are innumerable cases of officials from government or private companies trying to influence online behaviour and failing miserably. People invariably use the internet to air their greviances and will not appreciate having the official line repeated back to them.

Secondly, Big Brother Watch is concerned that this role is designed to prevent criticism of the police from taking place online. Those with understandable greviances should be free to air them in a democratic forum without fear of reprisal. We would appreciate the West Midlands police giving assurances that there will be no black-list created as a result of the web cop's work.

By Dylan Sharpe

Many thanks to Rodney for the tip on this story – much appreciated

Privacy concerns scotch Smart Meters plan in Holland

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

Smart-Meter Back at the beginning of December, I wrote a piece and spoke on the radio regarding Ed Miliband's announcement that the government would soon be rolling-out Smart Meters across the UK – and the danger that this posed to the sovereignty of our energy supply and the uncertainties surrounding the information that utility companies would now have immediate access to.

Today the Times has reported that:

The £8.1 billion rollout of smart meters in Britain could be knocked off course unless the Government and Ofgem, the energy regulator, act urgently to convince the public that the information provided by the meters will be held securely.

Fears that data on energy consumption could be misused by criminals, police or insurance companies have curtailed the compulsory introduction of the meters in the Netherlands, according to a report by Datamonitor, the market analyst.

Dutch consumer and privacy organisations were concerned that information relayed as frequently as every 15 minutes could allow employees of utility companies to see when properties were empty or when householders had bought expensive new gadgets.

These were points that I made in both my blog and on the radio – namely, that what happens after the readings are transmitted had not been given the sort of rigorous checking and vetting that the meters themselves had been subjected to.

The doomsday scenario is that once such intricate details of a person's energy habits are made available, the government could start proscribing ever-more individual taxation or even cut-off someone's energy supply on the basis of how much they were using.

The u-turn by the Dutch government represents a tremendous victory for privacy campaigners in the Netherlands and demonstrates that if enough noise is made about a civil liberties issue, eventually politicians will fold rather than face an electoral backlash.

By Dylan Sharpe 

We should allow cameras to cover court proceedings

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 2 Comments

Camera court Sky's John Ryley has announced that, after the forthcoming election, his organisation will be campaigning for television cameras to be allowed into our courts. 

Big Brother Watch is in total agreement with him. To make some obvious points (the first being an out-and-out cliché of course)

• Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done – faith in the legal system depends in part on seeing justice meted out fairly, particularly in this time of decline of faith in institutions

• As a reflection of the system of open justice we rightly allow members of the public to watch trials and court proceedings – cameras in the courts are just a reflection of that – there’s no possible logical justification for saying it’s fine for 20 people who can cram themselves into a gallery can watch, but the rest of us who can’t fit in can’t

• Existing provisions can be made for exclusion and/or anonymity where required

• People should be better informed of the workings of the justice system and there’s no better way to inform them about it than to show them.  The idea that our courts will be “dumbed down” by exposure to soundbite coverage needs to be weighed against the opportunity offered by TV cameras and coverage to actually show and explain the complexity of the system (and in any case, we get “soundbite” coverage already, only without the footage of the courtroom!).

• Cases will often be of public interest – why shouldn’t we be able to see what happens?  The burden should be on those wishing to keep these things secret, given that.

• The best evidence is preferred in court cases: it is perverse that the same doesn’t apply in allowing the reporting of what happens in courts – the best evidence of what happens is footage of actual events and arguments, not interpretation or glossing by others.

I say all that having practised for some time in criminal law, with some experience of the mechanics of reporting from court, filled public galleries, the resentment of families at being excluded by small seating areas, etcetera.  These things matter.  Sky's position is right and their campaign is right – we will do what we can to assist.

By Alex Deane