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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

Never mind the bollards

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

And so to the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, where we are presented with further evidence of why we should never rely solely upon technology.

Peterborough After responding to an emergency call, paramedics were forced to abandon their ambulance and run to a desperate patient after CCTV controlled bollards failed to function.

Luckily the 26 year old patient, who had suffered a fit, was placed on a stretcher and quickly taken to Peterborough District Hospital.

Peterborough City Council's resilience services manager later said that a network cable in the CCTV room had been accidentally disconnected, leading to a break in communication with the bollards.

This incident is another timely reminder of the uncertainty inherent in technology. The ‘simple’ fact that a network cable was unplugged could have cost someone their life. This was a real world physical object that could clearly act as an obstacle to emergency vehicles, yet no mechanism existed to prevent such an obvious occurrence.

Not only does this hallowed CCTV technology fail to prevent crime but it is now being implemented in such ways that actively endanger the public.

By James Stannard

Yet another example of CCTV failure

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

CCTVfacingwall Over at the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian, a typical story about failings in the local CCTV network, prompted by residents who have had to repeatedly point out that one of the cameras is pointing at the wall to which it's mounted;

The camera which is attached to one of the tower blocks on the Orchard Estate, in Woodford Green, is part of a network of 35 devices originally installed to improve security for residents.

The discovery will do little to allay the concerns of people living in the area who claim that several other CCTV cameras there are now either broken or that their footage is too poor quality to be used as evidence by the police.

As I said yesterday, these cameras don't just pose privacy concerns; they also have many practical problems, like the ones currently being experienced by the good people of Woodford.  These problems are usually ignored when the expenditure for installation, monitoring, maintenance and data storage for cameras is signed off, but, unhappily, it's residents who have to live with the failings of CCTV in an environment in which, with a finite pot of expenditure for law enforcement, there are fewer policemen around than there were before.

By Alex Deane

Creating crimes, creates criminals

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

When watching Big Brother, it is sometimes very difficult to avoid criticising the police. Yet we know that often it is not the officers that are to blame, rather the culture of law enforcement handed down to them from on high – the real Big Brother.

Acpo_badge This morning, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Denis O'Connor, has released a report into policing that shows how difficult the job of keeping law and order in Britain has become in 2009.

According to the Daily Telegraph:

Denis O’Connor said that forces have “drifted away” from the basics of front-line policing and serving the public.

He accused ministers, local authorities and police chiefs of “too many knee jerk reactions” to the problems of law and order.

“The principles of policing get drowned out in the noise,” he said. “You need to look at the number of units and departments at the Home Office, all the officials and the different committees and ask this question: do they think about the principles and values of the British model of policing?”

Centrally imposed targets have been criticised for distorting local police priorities, while red tape has diverted bobbies from the beat. Labour has created new crimes at a rate of nearly one a day since 1997. A separate report will say today that individual police officers solve an average of only nine offences a year.

It is that last paragraph which is the most shocking. When officers are having to deal with new offences at an average rate of a new crime a day, it is no wonder that we hear so many stories of people being arrested for spurious and frankly uncriminal acts.

There can be no doubt that there are plenty of cases of police heavy-handedness – and the rest of Mr O'Connor's report details the absurd tactics of the Met during the G20 protests – but every now and then we should spare a thought as to why our police behave like this.

More often than not it is because of – in the Chief Inspector's words - "knee-jerk" policies from above. And that, surely, is where the real problem lies.

By Dylan Sharpe

Godspeed, Damien Green

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 2 Comments

Damiangreen Damien Green MP, who speaks with an authority gained by hard experience on these issues, has a letter in the Times today in response to the appalling authoritarian article about which I've written elsewhere.

For your convenience, I thought I'd reproduce the text of the letter here:

Sir, Sean O’Neill’s article (“Don’t take away the modern copper’s toolkit”, Nov 25), in praise of the surveillance state and in particular the DNA database, which includes the records of nearly a million innocent people, misses one highly important point. To be effective, the police need the co-operation of respectable citizens. The wholesale collection and retention of the DNA of the innocent is quietly causing severe and widespread damage to relations between the police and this respectable majority.

After my own arrest, and the subsequent decision of the Metropolitan Police to declare me (wrongly) an “exceptional case”, I have received many cases of other innocent people who are trying to recover their DNA. They include magistrates, grandmothers, a number of former servicemen and women: precisely those who, like me, are instinctively inclined to help the police. The thread running through their complaints is how alienated they have been from the police by their own experience. We all want an effective police force, and the support of the public is one of the most vital tools for the police. Thoughtful police officers, and their cheerleaders, should reflect on this.

Damian Green, MP
Shadow Immigration Minister
House of Commons

By Alex Deane

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 20.11.09

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

Dear Supporter,


This week we bring you the news that Vanessa Kelly – the young mother given a £75 fixed penalty notice for feeding the ducks with her son – has scored a terrific victory in her battle with Sandwell Council. On Wednesday evening, the new leader of the council announced that he would be revoking the fine handed out to Vanessa and six other people for thowing bread to the ducks in Smethwick Hall Park.

As we wrote in the newsletter last week (previous newsletters are now available to view here) Big Brother Watch contacted Miss Kelly soon after we heard of her fine to offer our assistance, which she gratefully accepted (Alex Deane wrote exclusively in the Daily Telegraph that day about the whole affair and Big Brother Watch’s support), so we are delighted to see that Sandwell Council have been forced into this humiliating u-turn. However the Council still intends to fine people who feed ducks in the park and claim the problem is not with the bye-law but their signage in the area. 

Feeding birds is not a crime and people who do it are not criminals. Until Sandwell and other councils around the country stop trying to criminalise everyday pursuits, there will be more cases just like Vanessa’s. So Big Brother Watch is asking for any details of similar ridiculous fines placed on perfectly normal behaviour from across the UK. We want to build up a catalogue of petty council officialdom and name and shame the worst offenders. Your support, as ever, is much appreciated.

Three reasons to despise databases


Some of the most overbearing and intrusive policies of recent years have involved the collation and maintenance of huge government databases. DNA retention, Contactpoint and the ID card scheme have all required the state to gather, and have access to, vast amounts of our personal data. Yet we are told that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. Three stories this week have shown why we should always be wary when handing over our personal details.


1. You never know how it might be used – A high-flying lawyer who was wrongly accused of forging a signature and had her DNA taken by the police, is sacked when a routine check by her law firm revealed she was on the national database.


2. You never know who has access to it – T-Mobile employees decide to make some extra cash by flogging customer mobile phone details to the highest bidder.


3. What happens if the database fails? – A private company offering DNA health assessments files for bankruptcy, leaving a question mark over who owns all the data. 


While two of the above stories come from the private sector, the point remains that databases are open to abuse, and data loss - particularly within central and local government - is chronic. The message is clear: don’t hand over more than you absolutely have to! 



Guerrilla Sticker Campaign


It has been a week since the Big Brother Watch Guerrilla Sticker Action kicked off and we have already sent out over 7,000 stickers to the very furthest reaches of the UK and beyond to Austria, Spain and even Mississippi. But sadly we’re yet to receive any photos!


So, all those that have got their stickers – get snapping and get sending. If you haven’t asked for any stickers yet, email your name and address to [email protected] together with the number of stickers you would like us to send and we will post them in an envelope to that address; completely free of charge.


The chance to name, shame, and take a photo of our Big Brother State awaits!



Blogs of the Week


Imprisonment looming for man who does the right thing - fascinating case of a man who finds a shotgun - calls the police who tell him to bring it to the station – arrives at the police station and is arrested for posession of a firearm. Not only that, we later find that the police officer who allowed the man involved to walk into a criminal conviction is currently facing charges of misconduct. BBW is following this case closely and hope to be able to provide an update soon.


The dark ages - In our fifth guest post, investigative journalist Declan Wilkes runs us through a selection of the most intrusive and overbearing bills that have come before Parliament in the past few years and what to watch out for in the Queen’s Speech.


Seen, heard and constantly under surveillance - Salford Council are reprimanded for putting CCTV throughout their schools while in America they are giving parents access to 24-hour surveillance of their offspring in the classroom. Is there really any difference and, more importantly, are we in danger of anaesthetising future generations to CCTV cameras?



Media Coverage 


Daily Telegraph - Chief prosecutor backs state snooping plans

Dylan Sharpe, campaign director of Big Brother Watch, said: “It is not the government’s job to monitor our private communications. If the authorities suspect there is something going on they can do as they have always done and apply for a warrant from the courts. The DPP should also watch he doesn’t become a cheerleader for a government policy that the British people feel deeply uncomfortable about.”

City Talk 103.5FM – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Peter McDowall

Daily Express – CCTV in homes to spy on neighbours

But Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “People accept these cameras into their homes because they are afraid. The council might be installing them with the best intentions, but the end result is a culture of fear and mistrust driven by a failure by the borough and the police to have proper law enforcement in this area.

Metro – CCTV cameras placed inside homes

talkSPORT – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Ian Collins on the late show

BBC Look North – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Harry Gration

LBC 97.3FM – Alex Deane interviewed by James Whale on Drivetime

BBC News London – ‘Hidden CCTV’ installed in homes

Anti-CCTV group Big Brother Watch said the cameras would create a “culture of fear and mistrust” in the area. Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “People accept these cameras into their homes because they are afraid.

102.2 Smooth Radio – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by Nick Hatfield

BBC Radio Lincolnshire – Dylan Sharpe interviewed by William Wright

Daily Mail – Secret CCTV cameras fitted INSIDE people’s homes to spy on neighbours outside

Heart 102.7FM Peterborough – Dylan Sharpe interviewed on Lunchtime News

Daily Mail – Big Brother quiz for new school parents: Officials launch 83-point probe into families’ lives

Dylan Sharpe of the Big Brother Watch pressure group said: ‘This is incredibly intrusive and asks questions which, quite frankly, Lincolnshire Community Health Services do not need to know and have no right knowing. Even worse, the NHS Trust has failed to make it clear that this is a voluntary questionnaire. I would advise any parent receiving this to stick it straight in the bin.’

Wolverhampton Express and Star – Mother wins support in duck fine battle

Daily Telegraph – Health and Safety inspectors ‘sent in to family homes’


Alex Deane, director of “Big Brother Watch”, said that the plans risked endangering trust between medical staff and patients. “This crosses the important line between individuals asking the state for help and the state forcing ‘help’ on us, he said. Every time there is an intrusion into our privacy, there is always an ostensible good intention and normally it is to do with the protection of children.”

Alan Johnson on DNA retention – a quick fisk

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 4 Comments

The Home Secretary Alan Johnson has today written a short defence of the practice of retaining innocent DNA on the national database for six years. You can read the article in full on the Guardian Comment is Free, but we thought we'd pick out a few choice cuts and show why his reasoning is faulty, unreferenced and internally inconsistent.

"The most recent research supports the case for the retention of DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted. It also shows that, after six years, the probability of re-arrest is no higher than for the rest of the population."

AlanJohnsonBlue It is a shame that the Home Secretary did not reference this research, because it would have certainly helped his argument. I am left to speculate that the research might be that conducted by the Jill Dando Institute, whose Director came forward last month to admit that the Government has pressured the Institute into a figure and ended up basing their DNA policy on incomplete research. 

This might also explain the inconsistency in his argument; because if the evidence suggests that after six years those people whose DNA is retained on the database are just as likely to commit a crime as those who are not, where are the benefits of retention?

"I reject the claim by the Human Genetics Commission yesterday that large numbers of people are being arrested simply to collect their DNA. There is no substantive evidence to suggest this is so."

Except, as we wrote yesterday, the claim was made by a former senior police officer and there are constant streams of stories peppering the newspapers of people being arrested for spurious crimes and having their DNA taken.

"this accepts that there should be retention where there is no charge, while ignoring the evidence that three (or even five) years is too short a period. The Scottish model is said to be a success, but by whose standards, and by what evidence?"

Yet again we are left wanting the research that shows that 3 or 5 years is too little (more to the point Scotland regularly delete DNA profiles if the subject is completely innocent) but these 'standards' are those of the European Court who, when ruling that the system in England and Wales was "blanket and indiscriminate" and "could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society", described the Scottish system as "fair and proportionate".

"It is not a clear-cut choice between liberty and security – between siding with the civil liberties lobby or the forces of law and order. The far less headline-friendly reality is the need to balance all these factors – protecting the public, but in a way that's proportionate to the threat. I believe that the government's proposals do precisely that"

The law and order defence continues to look shaky (as previously reported, between 2004/5 and 2006/7 the number of profiles added doubled while recorded detections fell by 20%). By contrast there are a number of stories of people being discriminated against for having their DNA on the database and several reports from the US highlighting the fallibility of DNA evidence. Then there is the equally concerning rates of data loss and the fears of what happens when the wrong people get their hands on our biometric details.

The Minister quotes several cases in which the DNA evidence was critical in securing convictions, but we all know that the police frequently solve crimes committed by people who have never given a sample. Yet again this is a policy driven by political expediency, research we can't read and the desire to be 'seen to be doing something' with little consideration of the wider consequences.

By Dylan Sharpe

DNA datasets and our worst offenders

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | Leave a comment

DNA To follow on from the blogpost below, over on the Guardian's Data Blog they have pulled off all the information on DNA sample retention from the National Police Improvement Agency.

The figures are broken down by Regional Police forces and crime/DNA retention per 1000 people, which all makes for some very interesting conclusions.

  • The Metropolitan Police hold nearly 855,000 DNA profiles, or 17% of all the profiles on the database. However this actually only accounts for 113 profiles per 1000 people, whereas the area experiences 112 crimes per 1000 people. 
  • Perhaps more revealing is the fact that West Midlands Police hold nearly 228,000 profiles, or 118 profiles per 1000 people, and Northumbria Police hold 105,000 profiles at a rate of 125 profiles per 1000 people; when they experience just 87 and 75 crimes per 1000 people respectively.
  • To put that in context, Northumbria Police might be collecting 50 more DNA profiles per 1000 people than are actually causing crime. Multiply that by their population of 1.4 million, and that means that in 2008/09 Northumbria Police could have collected over 50,000 DNA samples from completely innocent people.

Have a play with the data over at the Guardian blog and tell us what you come with!

By Dylan Sharpe

A new low in the relationship between police and society

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 3 Comments

The big news of today is that the Government's very own DNA advisory body – the Human Genetics Commission – has said that the police are routinely arresting people simply to record their DNA profiles on the national database.

HGC In a report published today, Jonathan Montgomery, the commission chairman, said that “function creep” over the years had transformed a database of offenders into one of suspects.

He said that there was evidence that people were being arrested to retain their DNA information even though they might not have been arrested in other circumstances.

The report documents a retired senior police officer telling the commission “It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so. It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons…is so that DNA can be obtained.” He also said that the tradition of only arresting someone when dealing with serious offences had collapsed.

Alex Deane, Barrister and Director of Big Brother Watch, has said in response:

If true, this secret policy represents a new low in the relationship between the police and society.

The willingness to arrest people just to get their DNA, coupled with the Government's policy of retaining DNA samples from innocent people, means that a spurious arrest every half-dozen years can keep a completely blameless person on the database for life.

If ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ really applies, why aren't the police and government ministers all on the database?

By Dylan Sharpe

Home Office minister tries to sell ID cards on webchat…and fails

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ID cards | Leave a comment

MegHillierID After the terrors of Mumsnet and the furore of 'Biscuitgate', Home Office Minister Meg Hillier MP appeared on the Manchester Evening News website today for a webchat about ID cards.

The hour-long chat was a largely unremarkable series of probing and reasonable questions from understandably angry Mancunians; punctuated by typically lame and party-line responses from Ms Hillier, and the odd amusing faux pas from the Under-Secretary of State.

Such as, in answer to the question 'with regards to the current test in Manchester are there clearly defined sucess criteria?':

"I'm confident that once the people of Manchester get and use their cards they'll be spreading the word and there'll be a steady rise in numbers over the years." 

So that will be all 2,000 of them spreading the good news…And the wonderful:

"The databases will be very secure – think Police National Computer."
Like in this case, where an officer was misusing the database for 18 months before being caught. Alex has written about this in greater detail on CentreRight.

But by far the most pleasing aspect of the exercise was the online poll run in conjunction, which asked whether you will get an ID card. After an hour of Meg's heavy-sell, it stood at a terrific 97% No - 3% Yes (see below).

You will also see in the snapshot below, that Big Brother Watch asked a question – namely why she is using taxpayers' money promoting a scheme that nobody wants and is no longer compulsory. You will also note the Minister bravely sidestepped this question.

Meg Hillier Webchat 97
 By Dylan Sharpe

Safety and ‘soft lighting’

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

According to a report in The Gloucestershire Echo, a senior police officer has pledged to prevent a repeat of the vandalism that occurred in a Cheltenham park on Halloween night. Hoodlums decimated a bandstand which contained commemorative plaques of fallen RAF serviceman leaving local residents outraged. The sickening act prompted Deputy Chief Constable Mick Matthews to personally tackle the situation, even accompanying officers to break up a group of teenagers.

Softlittree He commented:

"For me, this is what policing is all about. I want to be able to come down and talk to officers about what is going on so I can get their feedback from the people who use the park first-hand.

"That is the only way I know if what we are doing is effective. There is no point in managing from afar. I am a policeman first and foremost and being out and about like this is what it is all about."

However, the good intentions of Mr. Matthews were shortly undone by Sergeant Mark Stephens, of the Whaddon Safer Community Team. Who offered:

"It is about finding short-term and long-term solutions. In the short-term we can conduct more patrols to break up groups of young people who can be intimidating but in the long-term it is about changing the public's perception of the park after dark.

"Increasing the number of CCTV cameras and, possibly, placing soft lighting in the trees, may be a way to do that.”

But why does the public perception of the park matter? Surely it is the actual safety of the park that is the issue. A little mood lighting and a camera will not breed paradise as Sergeant Stephens seems to think. Time and time again we are reminded of the ineffectiveness of CCTV, but still we see it praised and relied upon.

By James Stannard