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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

Now the schools are rebelling

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

Earlier this week I wrote about the ludicrous decision of Manor Community College in Cambridge to ban all non-CRB checked visitors to the school. At the time, I noted the following quote from the head teacher: "Ofsted makes the rules up, not me, and a lot of schools have failed their inspections for not safeguarding pupils." Well, it seems he's not the only one exasperated by the government's safeguarding body.

School gates Today the BBC reports that a number of 'school leaders' – ranging from the Independent Schools Association to the National Association of Head Teachers – have written to Children's Secretary Ed Balls to call for a review of the new vetting and barring scheme, which the BBC claims could affect up to 11m people. As they report:

The letter, from the seven main representative organisations for school and college leaders, says they take very seriously their duty to protect youngsters but the newly introduced system is "disproportionate to risk".

The school leaders say there will be a reduction in the support of parent volunteers in schools, for example for school plays and fund raising, as a result.

They also foresee difficulty in obtaining emergency support staff such as plumbers, heating engineers and midday meals supervisors.

It remains to be seen whether the DCSF takes the letter on board and relaxes the criteria. But one fears that this is yet another case of heavy-handed government legislation, ignoring the fears and experience of those on the ground.

By Dylan Sharpe  

Civilian security guards getting police powers

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

It is being reported this afternoon that security guards from The Mall in Norwich are being given powers to issue fines ranging from £50 to £80 to combat anti-social behaviour including littering, graffiti and drinking in public.

Security-guard According to the Daily Mail,

The new scheme makes it a criminal offence for a member of the public to disobey an order given by an accredited security guard.

They carry identification bearing the Norfolk Police logo and can demand an individual's name and address.

There can be no doubt that we all want cleaner streets and less anti-social behaviour, but this sort of measure is unlikely to achieve either of those aims. Instead, these new officers will almost certainly suffer from the same sort of 'plastic-police' tag that almost scuppered the PCSO scheme and will find themselves all but ignored by the worst offenders.

It also risks the sort of punitive and pointless fines we have seen from litter wardens targeting people for all the wrong reasons because they haven't had the appropriate training.

If Norwich can't tackle anti-social behaviour the conventional way, building a citizen's militia is certainly not the solution.

By Dylan Sharpe  

Does DNA testing affect your employability, or not?

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

Sh1032_Policeman_Shadow The legality of the drug mephedrone is under review, given that in its chemical composition it is very close indeed to ecstasy.  Putting the rights and wrongs of that to one side, i am most concerned by this just in, over at the Register:

Barnard Castle-based Inspector Kevin Tuck is reported as saying: "In Durham police have taken a stance and anyone found with it will be arrested on suspicion of possession of a banned substance."

He adds: "They will be taken to a police cell, their DNA and fingerprints taken and that arrest, depending upon enquiries, could have serious implications for example on future job applications" (our italics).

We asked Durham police for clarification of what possible serious implications there could be for an individual found in possession of a legal substance who had their fingerprints or DNA taken. It was speculated that perhaps some employers would ask prospective job candidates about details not merely of convictions, but of all contact with police – and therefore having DNA taken could adversely affect job prospects for that reason.

However, we have had no official response to our inquiry and remain as baffled as the Home Office, who are still sticking to their line that DNA testing in and of itself can have no consequence for an individual.

Well, which is right, then..?  Are we seeing a bottom-up change in policy as to the DNA database, or can we expect to see the Durham plod slapped down pronto?

We'll keep you posted on this as it unfolds.

By Alex Deane

Hat-tip: SZ

Your financial transactions are far from private

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

Uk-money There is an extremely large database of private information – banking transactions – accessible to a wide number of bureaucrats and public servants across the country.  Once you're on it, your data is on there for 10 years – and you won't be able to find out if you're on it or not, as it's exempt from FOI.  It's the anti-money-laundering database.

Lord Jopling explained this in the House of Lords this week.  It is a relatively complex issue, so I reproduce a fair chunk of his speech to give context but have bolded what I think is the central bit:

The reporting of suspicious activities by the private sector to law enforcement bodies is the keystone of the fight against terrorism. It follows recommendations made by FATF [Financial Action Task Force], but those are only recommendations. They acquire the force of law throughout the EU by being incorporated in the third money-laundering directive. Effect is given to the directive in the United Kingdom by the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. It is under these regulations that banks, other financial institutions, lawyers, accountants, auditors, insurers, estate agents and many others are required to report to the Serious Organised Crime Agency any transaction or activity that seems to involve funds that are the proceeds of criminal activity. Knowledge to do that is unnecessary. The bankers explained to us that this is a suspicion-based regime – if you smell a rat, you must report it. In 2007-08 the banks alone smelt and reported 145,000 rats, of which 838 related specifically to terrorist financing.

We did not question the utility of this; it is central to the fight against money-laundering. But given the immense burden of the regime on the private sector, we questioned whether the regime should apply where the underlying criminal offence is minor or even trivial. Some of our witnesses, especially the Law Society, agreed with us. We recommended that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 should be amended to exclude minor offences. The Government, in a response that I commend for its careful consideration of our recommendations and, to be fair, its full response to them, explained at length why an all-crimes approach should be retained. They pointed out that there may be little correlation between the sums laundered and the seriousness of an offence, that an activity may be suspicious irrespective of value and that something that the reporting institution may regard as trivial may look very different to SOCA when considered with other intelligence.

I am disappointed that the Government cannot accept our recommendation. But, if not, it is all the more important that they should act on our other recommendations: to consult more fully with the private sector and to give greater feedback on the utility of all their work and its outcome. The Government accepted this and listed some of the many ways in which they currently provide feedback. This seems to concentrate mainly on the top reporters and on first-time reporters. More could be done with those, such as small and medium-sized firms of solicitors, for whom the reporting regime is a real burden to which they object strongly. They need to be persuaded that their contributions are of real value.

Suspicious activity reports, or SARs, are entered by SOCA on to ELMER-I am sorry for all the acronyms-which is, in effect, a database of suspects. Given the number of reports, it is a very large database. As one might expect, access to it is available to police forces and others responsible for prosecuting serious crime. One might not have expected the information also to be available to trading standards authorities or, as the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, explained in a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Marlesford, who is in his place, to Nottinghamshire County Council, which wanted to use the database to investigate housing benefit fraud. This seemed to us to be an unwarranted use of information collected for a different purpose. We pointed out to the Government that the FATF recommendations do not require this information to be made use of other than in connection with serious crimes; nor does the money-laundering directive, which gives these recommendations the force of law, require that. "True", say the Government, but they do not prohibit it, either. Since the Government maintain the all-crimes approach for SARs, it seems that they will continue to allow the data to be used even in connection with offences that could not by any stretch of the imagination be called serious.

We read a great deal these days about the iniquities of the DNA of persons who have never been charged with a criminal offence being retained on the DNA database, but I wonder how many people know that the details of their banking transactions may be retained on a database not because they are connected with a crime that has been committed but because a bank employee-perhaps a lowly employee on the salary scale-has a hunch that a transaction may be related to a suspicious activity. No steps are taken to confirm whether the suspicion is well founded, details of the transaction are retained for at least 10 years and anyone who wants to peruse the transactions relating to him on the database is unlikely to succeed, since SOCA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. As I said, these entries can be accessed by a wide range of bodies for purposes wholly unconnected with serious crime.

The committee does not believe that this situation can continue. We recommended that the Information Commissioner should review and report on the operation and use of the ELMER database. The Government tell us that SOCA has invited the Information Commissioner to discuss this. The deputy Information Commissioner wrote to me on 5 October to say that he had made an initial approach to SOCA to discuss how he might carry out that review. That was two months ago-time for the bankers to have reported a further 2,500 suspicious transactions. Has that meeting taken place? Has the review begun? What progress has been made? Where is all this leading?

All questions Big Brother Watch would wish to ask, too.  In his response on behalf of the Government, Lord Brett singularly failed to answer them.

By Alex Deane

One in ten people in Hampshire on DNA database

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 1 Comment

Gidley Interesting result from a PQ put down by Romsey MP Sandra Gidley (Lib Dem) – one in ten people in Hampshire are on the DNA database.

As she rightly says:

“These figures are shocking. The government is succeeding in criminalising huge swathes of the population, particularly men.

"The government has little regard for guilt or innocence, nor for personal privacy and liberty.”

By Alex Deane

**UPDATE** 10 December 2009: over at the Southern Daily Echo once again: a pretty weak response from the Minister.

Now the electoral register will require (1) your signature (2) your date of birth (3) your NI number, in addition to (4) your name and (5) address…

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

Michael-Wills-MP-001 Yesterday, a speech was given by the (*Orwell weeps*) "Justice Minister", Michael Wills, rebutting (9 months late) the Rowntree report into the Database State. His speech prompted the Aaronovitch column about which I wrote here.

The one new announcement in his speech (not online, alas for us all) was this:

To that end, I am announcing today that the Ministry of Justice will host an event early in the New Year to consider how we approach the data sharing aspects of reforms to the electoral register. The electoral register is a vital document.  It is the foundation stone of our democratic processes and vital to the integrity of our elections.  It has also, since the 19th century, been a public document – although there are important restrictions on who may obtain a copy of the full register.

The register is held locally, by some 400 different Electoral Registration Officers.  The unit of electoral registration has historically been the household.  The Government passed legislation this summer to move to a system of individual registration – where each person will provide their name and address, and three personal identifiers – signature, date of birth, and national Insurance number – in order to be entered onto the register.

Let us consider that proposal.

Creating a national database of our signatures, NI numbers and dates of birth has obvious risks for our privacy and identity security. That's not always wrong; those risks might properly be balanced with benefits, so one asks – what is the problem the Minister wants to remedy?

The sole problem he identified in his speech is election fraud. This is a very small issue in this country, and is driven mostly by postal voting.  The “solution” he suggests comes with many problems of its own but doesn’t really address the very problem he says he wants to solve.

We have managed to have elections in this country without surrendering this sort of information for hundreds of years.

He wants to create a mechanism out of all proportion with the problem he has identified, with multiple inherent risks unjustified by the tiny benefit his scheme promises.

By Alex Deane

The DNA Database debate

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in DNA database | 1 Comment

Abbott In preparation for tomorrow afternoon's Westminster Hall debate on the DNA database, which Big Brother Watch shall be watching with interest, I recommend Diane Abbott's article over at ePolitix.comDNA database 'disproportionate and unprincipled'.

She makes a number of good points, and I thought this one particularly striking:

… as the inventor of DNA fingerprinting technology, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys has said, putting hundreds of thousands of random samples on the database would have the same crime-fighting benefits as keeping the DNA of innocent people on the database.

Once proven innocent of the crime you were arrested for you go back to being part of the non-criminal population. It is unfair, disproportionate and unprincipled to have it any other way.

I applaud Diane Abbott for getting the debate to take place and urge you to go read the whole thing.

By Alex Deane

**UPDATE** 11 December 2009 You can watch, listen to or read the debate here

‘Ello ‘ello ‘ello – prepare to be Tasered

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

The Standard tells us thatTaser British Transport Police officers armed with electric stun guns have been deployed on the rail network for the first time. BTP has announced that three-month "pilot schemes" have been launched by officers patrolling the rail network in London, Cardiff and Manchester.

This is bad news. Tasers are dangerous weapons. People are hurt by them and some in some cases those that have been hit have died.

For many years, the police have kept order in this country by dint of their authority, not superior firepower.

We must avoid an arms race between the police and criminals in this country. 

With more and more police in Britain carrying guns at airports and elsewhere, this may just be the next step in arming our police by stealth.

Helpfully, courtesy of YouTube, in America officers are only too keen to demonstrate why they shouldn't be entrusted with such things.

By Alex Deane

*UPDATE* This discussion continued over at ConservativeHome:


Police closing pubs for ‘inadequate CCTV coverage’

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

From the Lancashire Evening Post we learn that police in Preston have been closing down popular pubs and clubs on account of them having 'inadequate security camera coverage'. As the report says:

PC Julie Stewart from the licensing department at Preston Police was due to visit the pub (The Skeffington Arms in Ribbleton Lane) yesterday and said she would re-open it if CCTV was working.

She said: "It's for public safety and their own safety to detect crime. The pub had minimal CCTV – it wasn't recording. If an incident had happened and we needed to get evidence and locate an offender, we couldn't have from there. Even the staff aren't safe in those conditions."

Pub cctv While CCTV coverage is frequently very helpful to the police in cases of criminal and anti-social behaviour, this is surely taking the perceived benefits one step too far?

CCTV is very rarely a useful deterrent and has been shown on countless occasions to be equally poor when it comes to solving crimes.

Indeed earlier this year, John Bromley-Davenport, a criminal QC from Manchester, pointed to the case of Wayne Redfern, whose death at the hands of a gang outside a pub in Kirkham, Lancashire three years ago was caught on CCTV camera.

He said: “Although much of the action was captured on film, the quality was not sufficiently good for the purpose of identification and the presence of the cameras was no deterrent to those involved.

The men were eventually jailed after they were arrested, based on evidence supplied by eye-witnesses – not the CCTV cameras."

To be actively closing down pubs when the British pub is under such threat - closing at the alarming rate of 50 per week – and on such shaky grounds is not only very tough on the landlords and their staff, it is bad science and a bad way of conducting public safety.

After all, if the police in Lancashire believe so strongly in the benefits of CCTV, should it not be their responsibility to install the cameras and thereby have to justify the outlay in the council budget?

By Dylan Sharpe


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

Aaronovitch David Aaronovitch has a pretty typical column in today's Times, where he claims that, Believe it or not, Big Brother is your friend.

I have had this argument before with David.  Whilst quite the wit and personally charming, he is a slippery fish to debate against, principally because he ignores his opponent's arguments when they don't suit his own.

So, as he sets about berating "libertarian thunderers," he weirdly focuses only on the year-old Rowntree report into our Database State.  So he ignores the new NICE homes health and safety database, the EHRC's sexual equality database, and the Intercept Modernisation Programme, under which details of all e-mails and phone calls are to be recorded.  He ignores the ongoing ID cards scheme, rolling out "voluntarily" for workers in some sectors and now obligatory for foreign nationals, under which all uses of the card (and details of those using it) are recorded on a database too.

All of these schemes are openly planned, and none of them are addressed by Aaronovitch, whilst he labels those concerned about such things as "hysterical".  Well, if one pretends that such things don't exist, or don't appreciate that they do, then such concern might indeed seem over the top…

By Alex Deane

*UPDATE* Aaronovitch gets the fisking this rather lazy column deserves in a very good piece by William Heath