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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

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

Another school starts fingerprinting students

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

Childfingerprint Just before Christmas, Tory PPC Andrea Leadsom wrote a guest piece about her discovery that schools were regularly taking the fingerprints of their students as a means of identification.

In her post, she said that she would be writing to her local council to ask that they reject any attempts by schools in her area to introduce fingerprint scans.

However, today we have been called by a supporter in Hull who has flagged that a school in his local area has begun gathering fingerprints despite the objections of the council leader.

As reported by the Hull Daily Mail:

City council leader Carl Minns has criticised Hull Trinity House School for installing a biometric fingerprint system for pupils to get their school meals.

Councillor Minns says it goes against guidance issued to schools by the council.

The school, in Princes Dock Street, city centre, started using the system this week. Cllr Minns told the Mail: "My principal objection is on the grounds of information security.

"At some point the school will have to store a child's data on a computer and if it is subject to hacking or proper security is not there, then once the data is out there, it is out there for life and you can't get it back."

In recent days Big Brother Watch has been encouraging its supporters to bombard several misbehaving local councils, so it is refreshing to see a council leader showing such commonsense and concern for individual privacy.  

Councillor Carl Minns we applaud you for this stance and we will keep our readers updated on the progress of the council in getting Hull Trinity House School to reverse its position.

By Dylan Sharpe

This is not a joke

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 2 Comments

Playmobile Can there be anything more amusingly telling about the state of our surveillance society than the Playmobil Security Check Point?

By Alex Deane

Good for Google

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Mastering the Internet | 5 Comments

In the past, criticisms have been made (rightly, in my view) about the extent to whichGoogle Google has been willing to be complicit in China's repression of human rights activists and protestors, and suppression of free speech.  Well, no more. 

In a remarkably robust article, the Chief Legal Officer at Google has stated that

we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers.

Moreover, he goes on to say that

We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech. In the last two decades, China's economic reform programs and its citizens' entrepreneurial flair have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. Indeed, this great nation is at the heart of much economic progress and development in the world today.

We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that "we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China."

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Emphasis added.

By Alex Deane

Local livestock owner threatened with imprisonment over 80th birthday present

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 11 Comments

It would appear that a new decade has brought no let-up in the torrent of overbearing and frankly ludicrous actions by our Big Brother state.

Alongside the binman reprimanded for picking up rubbish, and the businessman arrested for a non-offensive email that he didn't write, we now have a popular local livestock owner threatened with imprisonment for a poster wishing him a happy 80th birthday.

As reported at Burnham-On-Sea.com

The family of well-known local livestock owner Arthur Duckett introduced the poster over the Christmas period to wish him a happy 80th birthday.

It shows Mr Duckett and his huge steer, Field Marshall, with the caption "a little man with big bulls."

Mr Duckett received a letter from Council enforcement officer David Crowle, stating: "It is the council’s view that the adverts are detrimental to the amenity of the area and as such will seek their removal."

It asked whether Mr Duckett woud be prepared to take down the "hoardings" without the need for formal action and warned that failure to abide by regulations could lead to a £400 fine or two years' imprisonment.

Quite apart from the appalling treatment of a well-liked 80 year-old man, in forcing him to remove the poster the council is pandering to the most wretched, humourless people who are apparently incapable of appreciating a mild joke with only the slightest hint of anything that could be deemed offensive.

I have placed the poster below. If any of our readers find it offensive they can write as much in the comments, however Big Brother Watch strongly recommends that they grow up.

For those who are more offended by the treatment of Arthur Duckett, we encourage you to send an email to David Crowle at [email protected] explaining why Arthur should be allowed to keep his poster (or words to that effect!).

By Dylan Sharpe

Media Coverage – 13th January 2010

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Media coverage | Leave a comment

Daily Mail – Stop-and-search terror powers declared illegal by human rights court

Controversial anti-terror laws which let police stop and search without grounds for suspicion were yesterday ruled illegal by European judges.

Civil liberties campaigners heralded the human rights verdict as 'a great day for freedom in Britain'.

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: 'Random stop and search powers were a shocking abuse of our historic, hard-won liberties.

'What this tremendous judgment cannot undo is the embarrassment and anguish felt by the many people abused for no good reason under this now unlawful power.'

Metro 13.01.10
Metro –
Random stop and search is illegal 

Daily Mail – Taxman using terror laws 15 times a day to spy on suspects

Alex Deane of the anti-surveillance pressure group Big Brother Watch said: 'The widespread abuse of the law by councils has shown us how carefully we must look at the way these powers are used.

'The extent of the use of RIPA by Revenue and Customs suggests that many individual taxpayers have been snooped on without their knowledge.'

He added: 'Readers of the Mail who see this news today might rightly wonder who has been watching them.'

The Independent – Police stop and search powers ruled illegal

24dash.com – UK police stop and search powers declared 'illegal'

An end to stop and search

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

Search As I've written over at CentreRight, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled today that the power to stop and search at random is unlawful.

I've covered this issue previously on this website and I point out once again that no successful prosecutions for terrorism offences ever resulted from these draconian stop and search powers in any case.  They failed to safeguard us from anything – they served only to intimidate, and to empower officials to intrude on us and our privacy without just cause – a terrible inversion of the proper relationship between the individual and the state,

So, today is a great day for freedom.  Random stop and search powers were an abuse of our historic, hard-won liberties and it is tremendous that it has come to an end. 

However, there are two notes of caution and regret that must be added.

First of all, this is the third occasion in very recent times that the European Court has had to tell the UK that we are behaving in a fundamentally illiberal and unjust way – together with the conviction of defendants solely or largely on the evidence of witnesses who do not attend trial for questioning, and the retention of samples from innocent people on the DNA database, this now shows a pattern of authoritarianism from our lawmakers that is to be lamented.

Secondly, let's not forget that this tremendous judgment cannot undo the embarrassment and anguish felt by the many people abused for no good reason under this now unlawful power.

By Alex Deane