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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

DNA database postcode lottery

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

As reported by the BBC and Times this morning, the Conservatives have revealed the full extent of the "shambles" that is the police approach to removing innocent people from the the DNA database.

According to the reports:

Some police forces refuse to remove any records once a case is closed and the person declared innocent, while others comply with 80 per cent of requests for deletion.

The figures show South Yorkshire Police are most likely to delete DNA, with 83 per cent of requests granted, followed by Cumbria with 78 per cent and Cleveland with 70 per cent.

Other forces including Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire refused to remove any profiles.

Big Brother Watch opposes the retention of the DNA of innocent people as a matter of principle, but these figures just further shame the government's approach to the DNA database.

By Dylan Sharpe

Further evidence of council CCTV failure

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

When Big Brother Watch released our first report earlier this month – a study into the huge number of council controlled CCTV cameras - we condemned the enormous rise of almost 200% in 10 years for several reasons.

Among these reasons was the issue of councils spending large sums to get the CCTV installed, often to placate their residents, but then switching the cameras off if they find the budget is stretched, or failing to upgrade the technology when it breaks or the image quality is found wanting.

It is therefore with little surprise that we see that today the Lincolnshire Echo is reporting that a quarter of the CCTV cameras controlled by Lincolnshire Council are currently not working.

While this news is disturbing and disappointing, Big Brother Watch hopes that our report has perhaps encouraged a few more people to question the problems surrounding CCTV. 

When the cameras aren't working we get the worst of both worlds – they don't catch or solve crimes, and the police who rely on them leave the relevant areas un-patrolled with false confidence.

By Dylan Sharpe 

Media Coverage – 28th December 2009

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

Daily Mail – The 20,000 snooper army: Vast number of town hall bureaucrats get power to enter your home without a warrant

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, which carried out the research, said: 'Once, a man's home was his castle. Today, the Big Brother state wants to inspect, regulate and standardise the inside of our homes.

'Councils are dishing out powers of entry to officers for their own ease, without giving due thought to the public's right to privacy and the potential for abuse. There needs to be a much closer eye kept on the number of officers granted the right to barge into private premises without a warrant.'

Daily Telegraph – 20,000 council workers can enter homes without a warrant

The Sun – The Snoop Troop

Daily Express20,000 state snoopers who can walk into your homes

Conservative Home – Caroline Spelman MP repeats Tory promise to abolish council tax inspectors’ right to enter private homes

Western Mail – Conwy near top of 'Big Brother Barge-In League'

Hull Daily Mail – No warrant needed to enter homes

A full list of our media coverage is available here.

Barging In: Estimated 20,000 Council Officers in Britain Able to Enter Private Property

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 28 Comments

Research conducted by Big Brother Watch – the new campaign fighting intrusions on privacy and protecting liberties – reveals that there are at least 14,793 officers in 73 per cent of local councils in Britain who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police escort
Top lines from the research (full report including breakdown by local authority available here) include:

  • There are at least 14,793 officers in local councils nationwide who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police officer escort
  • That is equal to 47 officers in every local authority in Britain able to enter homes and workplaces
  • Given that 115 (27 per cent) local councils either refused to answer our FOI requests, or failed to answer in an acceptable manner, this figure could be much higher and indeed be as high as 20,000 council officers in Britain
  • Northamptonshire County Council and Glasgow City Council have the most officers able to enter your home with almost 500 each

Research conducted by Big Brother Watch has revealed that there are at least 14,793 officers in local councils nationwide who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police escort. Due to the complexity of the question and the huge number of laws permitting power of entry, 27 per cent of councils were unable to answer the FOI request in full. If the average from those councils who gave a sufficient answer was extrapolated to the full number of councils nationwide, there could be as many as 20,000 local authority officers in Britain able to enter your home or place of work.
In July 2008 the Home Office published a full list of the 1,043 laws permitting state inspectors to enter people’s homes and premises. Barging In is the first nationwide survey of the number of officers in each Local Authority holding the power to enter a private home or business without requiring a warrant or police escort. Through Freedom of Information requests sent to every single local council in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Big Brother Watch has arrived at a total figure for the number of environmental health technicians, anti-social behaviour officers, safety control inspectors and so on who, on 15th June 2009, if they so wished, could enter your private residence or place of work.
Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, said:

“Once, a man’s home was his castle. Today the Big Brother state wants to inspect, regulate and standardise the inside of our homes.

"Councils are dishing out powers of entry to officers within their council for their own ease, without giving due thought to the public’s right to privacy and the potential for abuse.

"There needs to be a much closer eye kept on the number of officers granted the right to barge into private premises without a warrant.” 

To read the full report, which includes detailed information on every local authority, please click here.

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

Holding Page

Want your children to have school dinners? Surrender their fingerprints

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

Andrea 2 Andrea Leadsom is the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for South Northamptonshire

Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of students from Sponne and Campion Schools to the Houses of Parliament.  But over our sandwiches afterwards, sitting on a wall in the drizzle of a cold Monday in Westminster, one of the students raised an issue with me that I found truly shocking.

He wanted to know if I thought that fingerprinting/iris scanning of children in schools might breach their Human Rights under EU legislation.  I was surprised as, until he explained further, I was unaware that millions of our children are right now being required by their schools to have fingerprints or iris scans done in order to borrow a library book or buy their lunch.

How would you feel if the government suddenly passed a law that every adult had to be fingerprinted at their local police station? Yet schools it would appear have accumulated fingerprint or iris data on millions of children, some as young as three. And apparently often without their parents' consent.

My student friend told me that a member of his family working in security systems believes that with a few hundred pounds of ‘hacking’ equipment, it would be possible to sit in a car outside the school gates and collect all that data.  The lifelong, permanently distinguishing data of children is at risk of being lost or stolen, and for what? 

I really fear for the direction this country is headed in.  There are so many examples of data being lost or stolen – collecting this permanent record of a human being should only be done for extreme reasons and certainly not for identifying whose library book is due back.

We risk the next generation growing up with an acceptance of cradle-to-grave state snooping and control, with all the errors and potential for identity theft that will ensue.  What's more, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money must be being wasted on installing fingerprint/iris readers in schools.

Liverpool Council has rejected this recording of children.  I will be writing to Northants County Council in the hope that they will do likewise.

We shall be watching for the results of Andrea's campaign with great interest.  If you want to oppose fingerprinting in your school, get in touch with Big Brother Watch, or with the excellent Leave Them Kids Alone campaign.

Judge imprisons a man despite openly expressing his own doubts about the conviction

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 4 Comments

Scales Now that our CCTV report has been published, I am catching up on various stories from the past few weeks.  One that you may have already seen is this, over at the Times.

Philip Bowles, a businessman, has been imprisoned for an apparent failure to pay over £1 million in VAT. So far, so fair enough.  But the plot thickens.

Bowles lived with his assets frozen for three years, reliant on legal aid to help him fund his defence.  In those three years, access to his firm's records (vital to establish the defence) was hampered by this, and also by the fact that the firm was in administration.  So a vital report from a forensic accountancy investigation into his affairs, compiled gratis by a neutral accountancy firm, was not ready until after he was convicted on one of the three counts his faced.

The report concluded that, rather than having cheated the Revenue, Bowles had in fact overpaid.

Whilst the document was not available for the trial, was available by the time that it came to sentence this man.  His QC submitted that this vital new evidence, unseen by the jury, was so significant that the Court of Appeal ought to hear about it before Bowles was sentenced.  This is without precedent, but it must be right, mustn't it?  The material was relevant and probative and ought to have been seen by the jury in the course of the trial.  It is expert, neutral evidence, pointing directly to the innocence of the convicted man.  It has emerged late through no fault of the defendant's.

For those reasons, as you can read about over at the Times, the Judge openly expressed concerns about putting a man “in a place where he should not be if he is not guilty”, saying “I am loath to let this matter drag on but equally I am loath to put a man in prison if he shouldn’t be there."  And yet he nevertheless went on to sentence Bowles to custody, and he is now in prison.  The Judge, acting – I must stress – entirely in accordance with established rules, protocols, procedures and precedent, sentenced him to imprisonment, pending his now-inevitable appeal.

Behind the eye-catching headline about the judge's doubts, this may at first glance seem to be a narrow or technical question about when and how one can appeal one's conviction and/or sentence.  But it's one that has enormous ramifications for the individual in such a position – indeed, it has meant the difference for this man (who has no previous convictions) between being at liberty and being in prison.  As he spends Christmas behind bars, to him and his family that distinction will not seem narrow or technical at all.

Until his case is heard in the Court of Appeal, this 60 year old businessman with no previous convictions will be incarcerated at our expense rather than out and earning and supporting his family.  One must ask, in the circumstances – to what end?

I in no way mean to take a cheap crack at the justice system in which I have worked for some years but it seems to me that a legal system that lacks the flexibility properly to reflect the discovery or production of significant new evidence is a system in which the relationship between the state and its rigid procedures and the individual is unbalanced.  It is a system in which the very serious power to deny an individual his liberty is not fettered by appropriate caution and governed by good sense as it properly should be.  It is a system in need of reform.

By Alex Deane

Out of the DNA database and into the PNC

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

Public Service has reported on an investigation from The Observer that reveals that any innocent person who is able to get their DNA profile deleted from the national database, will still have their details stored on the Police National Computer (PNC).

PNC According to the report,

Prior to the expansion of the DNA database, details were deleted on acquittal or if charges were dropped after 42 days. But according to the NDNAD's annual report in 2005 it has become necessary "to retain a nominal record of every person arrested for a recordable offence on the Police National Computer". The report said this would help police identify and locate people in their investigations.

This yet another example of the state's ever-present desire to gather as much information on its citizens as possible. Innocent people should not be on any police database, regardless of how useful or expedient having that data might be. Remember – you own your data. Not the state.

In addition, the PNC can be accessed by several thousands of police officers across the UK - with the capability for the data to be accessed by police forces in Europe, America and beyond – which makes it even less secure than the DNA database.

Big Brother Watch is concerned about the degree to which law enforcement is sliding towards guilty until proven innocent; and the repercussions we are witnessing for schemes like CCTV expansion, ID cards and state databases.

By Dylan Sharpe

Ireland debates the creation of a DNA database

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

Ireland-flag_1 The debate over Ireland's proposed creation of a DNA database (plans for which are in advanced stage now) is covered on various news sites, with discussion of the compulsory nature of sample collection.

Given the experience of the database in the UK, containing samples from one in ten of us and with samples from a million innocent people on it, one can only point our Irish friends to the British experience as a strong example that suggests they should pause before committing themselves to this plan further.

By Alex Deane

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham: A New Hope?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Databases | 6 Comments

ChristopherGraham On Sunday, Christopher Graham - Britain's new Information Commissioner - gave his first newspaper interview to the Sunday Telegraph and a bit of hope to all of us who want to see more transparency in government.

Mr Graham said:

"I think [in the past} the Information Commissioner's Office [ICO] has not been alert enough and fierce enough with public authorities that do not comply with their requirements under the Freedom of Information [FOI] Act." 

As many of you will know, last week Big Brother Watch released our first major piece of research (available to download in full here). It was a massive study into council controlled CCTV cameras and every piece of information was gathered through FOI requests. It is essential that the ICO is strong in making local and national government bodies open up to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of the state. 

Among the other highlights, Mr Graham said he wanted to

…urge the Government to introduce firmer enforcement of personal privacy laws including jail sentences of up to two years for rogue company employees who illegally sell confidential information.

This is another key issue for Big Brother Watch. We are vehemently opposed to new databases on principle, but those that have been created require far greater security.

And finally, but most pleasingly of all, the article ends with the following text:

The Information Commissioner is clearly concerned society's obsession with CCTV cameras has gone too far. "There needs to be some evidence that it is necessary. You can't just say: 'It's a [crime] deterrent so we will have it.' It needs, for example, to go into pubs where there is a history of trouble. But it's unfair for a licensing authority to have CCTV as a matter of routine because law-abiding citizens should be able to have a meal or a drink without being captured on CCTV." 

This is a very encouraging statement from a man who has the power to change the way CCTV is used by public bodies in this country. Our report last week has had a great effect in re-starting the debate about camera surveillance and its enormous proliferation in Britain. Hopefully Christopher Graham can keep the discussion going and enact the fundamental change in approach to CCTV this country really needs.

By Dylan Sharpe