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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

RIPA and local councils, redux

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Preston-CC As reported today over at the Lancashire Evening Post, RIPA laws are still being used by a Lancashire council to snoop on residents:

In the past year "static surveillance" including video was used five times by Preston Council to spy on families suspected of housing benefit fraud and to gain evidence of the "illegal dumping of waste" at a city supermarket.

We've written before about misuse of RIPA (when used to watch hedge trimming, for example) and it's great to see the LEP on the case.  Their story follows a Freedom of Information request they submitted after the Government announced plans last month to ban Town Halls from using intrusive techniques under RIPA for "trivial" offences such as school catchment area policing, "bin crimes" and dog fouling.

Local Liberal Democrat Councillor Bill Shannon, who has supported a motion calling on Preston Council to curb its use of this law, said:

"These powers are excessive and were brought in to counter terrorism.

"They should only be brought in for serious cases where the outcome is likely to lead to imprisonment and it seems none of these cases would result in terms of imprisonment. It surprises me."

Spot on.  I would also point out that those who are found to be innocent of all wrongdoing currently have no right to know that they were snooped on – if the subject (like the great Jenny Paton in Poole) finds out, it will often be by accident or by optional disclosure by the Council.  Big Brother Watch thinks that councils should have to tell you if you've been spied on when you've done nothing wrong.

Shannon also called on the council to release more information about when it is using the powers, adding: "We should know more and be able to say that these powers are only used in really serious cases." 

The LEP discovered that RIPA was authorised four times in 2009 by Preston Council to investigate possible housing benefit lasting eight days.  It was also used a further time for the entire month of June to monitor suspected fly-tipping at a Preston supermarket.

The LEP also reports that the five times RIPA was used by Preston last year

is a reduction on previous years. RIPA was used eight times in 2008, 26 times in 2007, on 34 occasions in 2006 and 23 times in 2005 – 96 times in the past five years.

RIPA powers were brought in nine years ago to help police combat serious crime and terrorism, but have been used by a range of public bodies to carry out more minor surveillance work.

Councils across the country have used the legislation nearly 10,000 times to carry out a range of spying.

Apparently, an attempt to limit its use at Preston Council was voted out by councillors in August 2008.  Whilst applauding those decent councillors who made that attempt, and lamenting the attitude of the majority who rejected it, Big Brother Watch would advise local councils to limit their use of RIPA powers in the face of clear public will on this issue – and urge voters to punish those who fail to do so.

By Alex Deane

Tired of watching homeowners, the council starts spying on its binmen

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As reported by the Ormskirk Advertiser today:

A binman from Ormskirk says he has been taken off his round of 34 years as ‘punishment’ for taking waste left at the side of wheelie bins. Albert Stewart, 60, of Scarisbrick Street, works as a refuse collector for West Lancashire Borough Council.

He told the Advertiser: “I have done the same round in Aughton for over 30 years, and just because I took some side waste, I’m being punished – they’ve taken me off my round.

“They weren’t just people I took rubbish from – they were my friends too.”

Wheelie_bin Of course, according to West Lancashire Borough Council, binmen should only empty wheelie bins and must leave other rubbish dumped beside the bins behind. Therefore, Albert has committed a heinous violation.

And why, might we ask, do they enforce this law? Well, householders caught leaving rubbish outside wheelie bins can be fined an initial Fixed-Penalty Notice of £100, which if they refuse to pay can go up as high as £1,000.

This case is a sad indictment of Britain as we enter a new decade. A man who has committed no real offence, used his commonsense, done a little favour for families, and has actually helped foster a nicer environment in his area, is punished because the council has enforced pointless, pathetic rules designed to hit the law-abiding citizen in the pocket.

The state needs to take its nose out of our bins and its hands out of our pockets.

Big Brother Watch also wants to see the council reinstate Albert to his usual route as soon as possible.

By Dylan Sharpe 

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 18.12.09

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Dear Supporter,

Merry Christmas from Big Brother Watch. Today we have released our first major report, Big Brother Is Watching (available for download in full at http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/cctvreport.pdf). Through Freedom of Information requests sent to every single local council in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Big Brother Watch has found that there are at least 59,753 CCTV cameras controlled by local councils in the UK – three times more than ten years ago.

The release of our report has prompted a number of people to get in touch and tell us their own local authority CCTV horror stories. We are developing some of these further and we hope to keep the debate about CCTV in the mainstream with these stories. As ever, if you hear of any cases of CCTV, or general Big Brother intrusion, please do contact us.


Local Council Controlled CCTV Cameras Treble in 10 Years


The Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera has become a ubiquitous feature on Britain’s streets. The most frequently quoted figure for the number of CCTV cameras in the UK (c.4 million) is based on a loose estimate generated by a walk taken down a single street over a decade ago. Whilst impossible to count the precise number of privately owned CCTV cameras, Big Brother Is Watching is the first report to bring together the various arguments against CCTV and place them alongside a definitive list of the number of CCTV cameras operated by Britain’s 428 local authorities.

You can download a full copy of the report by clicking here. We have full breakdowns by local council, so why not go on and see how your own local authority is performing?

As well as the lists of the number of CCTV cameras controlled, we also outline why CCTV requires more scrutiny under five broad categories:

1. CCTV has been viewed by those controlling expenditure as a cheap alternative to conventional policing, with no demonstrable equivalent success in reducing crime.

2. The efficacy of CCTV is open to challenge, with cameras regularly turned off, footage being deleted before it can be used and pictures of insufficient quality for court purposes.

3. Local authorities have spent an unprecedented amount of money to make the United Kingdom the most watched nation of people anywhere in the world. That amount of spending on CCTV is steadily increasing, with funds being diverted from conventional policing budgets to pay for the new technology.

4. CCTV serves as a placebo for many local authorities designed to appease neighbourhoods suffering from anti-social behaviour problems.

5. As the number of CCTV cameras increases, so does the potential number of people being watched and the number of council officers watching – with implications for personal privacy and data security (on which, take a look at this photograph taken by a supporter – a camera in Wandsworth pointing straight into somebody’s home).

Notwithstanding all of the expenditure on surveillance in our country to date, another wave of CCTV spending is now taking place despite the straitened economic climate. This is therefore an important time to debate these issues. Big Brother Watch intends to produce Big Brother Is Watching yearly to keep an annual check on the proliferation of CCTV cameras in the UK.


Blogs of the Week

Council of last week…Liverpool! – truly remarkable stuff from Liverpool City Council as they vote to oppose the introduction of ID cards in the city, saying that they will actively work with No2ID to educate their residents about the dangers of the Home Office behemoth

Once again, Wandsworth should be ashamed – on the day our CCTV report is released, a story breaks about a man who was fined after being caught on CCTV stopping for just 36 seconds. Who was he fined by? Wandsworth Council; who have the highest number of cameras in London with a whopping 1,113 and have the 8th highest number of cameras per head in the UK with over 4 for every 1000 residents

Private security groups move into frontline policing – an account of the worrying trend of private security firms taking over conventional policing. No checks and balances, no accountability, no guessing what happens next


Media Coverage

BBC News – Council CCTV cameras treble in 10 years

The number of council-operated CCTV cameras has nearly trebled in a decade, privacy campaigners say. There are now said to be 60,000 cameras run from town halls across the UK. Alex Deane, the director of Big Brother Watch, which carried out the survey, said: “The evidence for the ability of CCTV to deter or solve crimes is sketchy at best.”

The study, entitled Big Brother is Watching, found that 418 local authorities control 59,753 cameras. Ten years ago, a similar study found that the total was 21,000.  

The Times – Local councils ‘have trebled number of CCTV cameras in a decade’

Daily Mail – Council snoopers watch us on 60,000 CCTV cameras

Evening Standard – 8,000 CCTV cameras are watching you

Guardian – Britain’s wasteful mania for CCTV

Daily Mirror – 60,000 CCTV snoop cams

Daily Express – CCTV cameras ‘being used as cheap policing’

Daily Telegraph – CCTV cameras trebled in ten years

Sky News – ‘Big Brother’ Councils Treble CCTV Cameras

Southern Daily Echo – Full scale of council CCTV cameras in Hampshire revealed

Kettering Evening Telegraph – Growth of CCTV causes concerns

Express and Star – 1,500 CCTV cameras spying on our streets

The Herald – Fears CCTV cameras used as ‘cheap alternative’ to policing

Daily Mail – March of the wardens: Town hall ‘enforcers’ with police powers increase by a fifth in a year

Alex Deane of Big Brother Watch said: ‘This is little less than state-sanctioned vigilantism. It’s even worse than policing on the cheap, it’s policing without the checks and balances that we get with the actual police force.

‘Councils are completely unequipped to police the pretend policemen they are licensing. Even worse, the number of these officers is rising because councils want to send them out to collect the ludicrous fines for regulations we shouldn’t have imposed on us in the first place.’

Daily Express – Ed Balls to scale down Big Brother checks

Dylan Sharpe, campaign ­director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The Government has ­fostered an atmosphere in which children are taught not to trust adults and adults are afraid to be left with children.”

A full list of our media coverage for this week is available in our media archive here.

Public safety and public relations

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Public bodies always play a tricky game when it comes to balancing the need to educate the public about their services, with the desire to promote their own worth.

Police officer Our colleagues at the TaxPayer's Alliance have done several studies into the uses and abuses of communications budgets and PR within the public sector, invariably concluding that state bodies rarely miss an opportunity to proclaim their own successes.

Nevertheless, the public ought to be able to expect to be told the truth by those who are paid through our taxes.

As reported by the Daily Mail this morning:

Police officers have been told to avoid talking about crime to members of the public – after Home Office chiefs found it 'upsets them', it can be revealed today.

The report, called Improving Public Confidence in the Police Service, states that when officers highlight crime and anti-social behaviour problems at community meetings it can lead to 'feelings of fear' among the public.

One officer from Thames Valley Police, who did not want to be named, said the report sounded like a 'bad joke'. ‘What the hell do they expect us to talk about at a public meeting? The price of tea in China or how much a pint of milk costs?' he said.

Community meetings are an invaluable way of airing problems in an area and getting proper 'face-time' with the relevant council members and police officers who are charged with protecting the public in a certain area.

For a central government document to be advocating bare-faced lying in the interests of protecting reputation is both immoral and dangerous. 

If the police are going to start refusing to recognise issues of anti-social behaviour and crime in a community, what hope is there that they will actually solve them?

By Dylan Sharpe

Drogba, Robinho, Tevez and others find themselves carded

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ID cards | 2 Comments

A bad day on and off the pitch for non-EU footballers, who have found themselves the victims of retrospective justice, each picking up cards in the near future.

Red-card However it won't be a 3 match suspension facing Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor et al. No, this time they're being asked to give their fingerprints, a face-scan and personal details including their address and employment information.

The disciplinary committee on this occasion is not the FA or the Premier League, but instead our national government. And the card in question is, of course, the dreaded ID card.

As reported by the Evening Standard:

Foreign footballers face having to carry an identity card to prove who they are, it was announced today.

Professionals from outside the EU playing in the UK will have to apply for a card when they renew their visas, the Home Office said.

Currently holders of student and marriage visas are required to apply for a card when it expires. A total of 130,000 visas have been issued since the scheme was launched in November 2008.

But from today all skilled workers, as well as religious ministers and professional sportsmen and women, are included.

Dropping the football puns, there are three major problems here. The first, and most worrying, is that measures like this bring the ID card scheme closer to the government's orginal intention of full-scale implementation – something that must be avoided at all costs.

The second issue is the logic around making high profile figures provide such sensitive information. There is going to be a high premium for getting hold of the information and we know how leaky these databases can be.

Finally it needs to be asked: how much this is going to cost the UK taxpayer?

What is clear is that the ID card bandwagon shows no sign of slowing.

By Dylan Sharpe 

Arrested for having a “domestic”

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I imagine everyone reading this has, at some point, had an argument with their partner.

People-shouting A toilet seat left up, an anniversary missed, a return to the marital home somewhat worse for wear; the reasons for a "domestic" are numerous and varied.

It begins with a shouting match but, if there's alcohol involved or late at night, a row can rapidly escalate into slammed doors and a night spent on the couch. 

In most cases a period of cooling off and a good night's sleep is enough to banish the bad feeling, and it's time to make up.

But in France, the Prime Minister Francois Fillon seems to think that there are wider consequences to be drawn from these arguments.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph:

Married couples could be arrested and charged for insulting each other under a new law in France banning 'psychological violence'.

It is expected to cover every kind of slur from repeated rude remarks about a partner's appearance, false allegations of infidelity and threats of physical violence.

The law would apply to husbands and wives, as well as cohabiting couples. Police are being urged to issue a caution in the first instance of a reported crime, but repeat offenders could face a fine, electronic tagging or jail.

Domestic violence is an abhorrent and truly awful crime, and those that commit acts of violence upon their partner deserve the maximum punishment befitting their actions. But a shouting match is not domestic violence - physical or psychological.

We have chosen to highlight this legislation from across the channel because it exemplifies the current vein of nanny statism that seeks to control everything from how we travel, to how we eat and now, seemingly, how we live and love.

Let us hope that the outcry naturally produced by a few high-profile cases brings this law tumbling down – the sooner the better. The last thing we need is our own government getting ideas.

By Dylan Sharpe 

The iceman cometh

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Slip A man who recently slipped on some ice and hurt himself very badly told me tonight that when he asked why the pavement hadn't been gritted, the answer he received was that the council feared litigation if pavements were gritted and people nevertheless fell.

For the moment, pending a letter from Big Brother Watch to the relevant council to ascertain the background and their position, I won't name the council.  Nevertheless, I really want to ask Big Brother Watch supporters about this.  This is something commonly suggested; one often hears about such rules second-hand.  Does anyone have any experience of such things directly?

By Alex Deane

Fewer than 1% of crimes solved using DNA database

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 5 Comments

It has been revealed that just 33,000 of the 4.9 million crimes committed in Britain each year are solved using the DNA database.

Geneticengineering Chief Constable Chris Sims of West Midlands, the Association of Chief Police Officers' (Acpo) lead on the issue, cited the figure as he gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee today.

As reported by Politics.co.uk, the Home Affairs Committee were listening to the evidence of various innocent people who have had their DNA taken by the police, as well as groups such as Acpo, to evaluate the government policy on DNA rentention.  

As we have written many times before, despite the revised time-scale for removal of 6 years, the policy of holding the DNA of innocent people is a massive infringement on our personal liberty.

These latest figures prove that DNA evidence is not the silver bullet that many police officers, or indeed the Home Secretary, would have us believe.

Perhaps now our right to our own biometric data can be placed before the expediency of the state.

By Dylan Sharpe

Crimes caught on CCTV fall by 70 per cent

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

When Big Brother Watch released our report into local authority controlled CCTV cameras last month, we found that the number of cameras had trebled in a decade and contrasted that rise with various official government reports which questioned the effectiveness of CCTV in tackling crime.

Cctv-Parliament Our aim was to re-open the debate on CCTV and prompt more people to question whether it really is providing the protection and support that many people seem to think it does.

As reported in the Daily Telegraph this morning, figures obtained through FOI requests show that:

…there has been a 71 per cent fall in the number of crimes "in which CCTV was involved" in the Metropolitan Police area, from 416,000 in 2003/4 to 121,770 in 2008/9.

The number of these crimes which resulted in a charge, summons or caution fell from 47,000 to 23,000 over the same period.

The proportion of all crimes solved using CCTV in London also fell from half in 2003/4 to one in seven in 2008/9.

The Telegraph sent the FOI requests to all police forces in England and Wales but only four responded. In Humberside the number of crimes caught on camera also fell – from 1,583 in 2005/6 to 1,114 in 2008/9 - this in a year when nearly 90,000 recorded crimes were logged by local police.

Figures from the four forces which provided the information showed that one in eight crimes in the areas – 146,959 offences out of 1.147million – were detected using CCTV cameras.

The success rate varied wildly from area to area, with as many as one in five crimes detected using CCTV in Northumbria, while in Humberside as few as one in 80 offences detected using the cameras in the year to the end of March 2009.  

It has been right for some time to ask whether CCTV is no longer working as a crime fighting tool. There are now simply too many cameras in this country.

Law enforcement personnel spend many fruitless hours going through reel after reel of footage and millions of pounds that might have been spent in other ways is wasted on cameras and monitoring.

Crimes that might have been solved by conventional methods go unsolved as a result and we have engendered a police force reliant on a deeply flawed method of law enforcement. 

By Dylan Sharpe

Invasion of the full body scanners

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

Back in October, Big Brother Watch reported on the news that Manchester Airport was to trial new full body scanners, offering a note of caution about who was watching, where the images might be going, and why they needed to be quite so graphic.

Bodyscan Now, in the wake of the so-called 'pants bomber', Gordon Brown has announced plans to install these body scanners at all UK airports.

Once again, we are left unconvinced by the security surrounding the images produced and who is looking at them. Just to remind you, these scanners produce what is essentially a naked image of the passenger; showing up piercings, implants and crucially, private parts.

But there is also now emerging a general consensus that not only are these scanners massively intrusive, they also are only of limited effectiveness.

As reported by the Daily Mail:

Tory MP Ben Wallace, who worked on the scanners at defence research organisation QinetiQ before entering Parliament in 2005, said the £100,000 ‘millimetre wave’ machines would not have stopped syringe bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from trying to mount his attack on Christmas Day

‘The millimetre wave technology is harmless, quick and can be deployed overtly or covertly. But it cannot detect chemicals or light plastics' he said.

And in the Daily Telegraph today:

Swabbing airline passengers and their hand luggage for chemicals is cheaper, easier and more effective than the hotly-debated use of X-ray style body scanners, according to two top former US government security officials.

Supporters of the trace detection tests say not only are they easy and quick but also cheap – the one-off capital start-up costs would be about $40 million to cover all flights to the US, plus at most another $10 million a year to run. By contrast, the X-ray style scanners are expensive, raise privacy issues for some and may not pick up devices hidden in body folds and cavities.

Any scheme is likely to have its critics, but as the criticism mounts, one has to ask if we are getting any real return for what is going to be a massive outlay installing these scanners?

Or are we just witnessing yet another unwarranted invasion into our personal liberty in the name of fighting terror?

By Dylan Sharpe