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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

Childhood’s End

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 17 Comments

Pink-ktm-motorcycleA Labour MP wants a ban on shops selling ‘sexist’ pink toys to little girls.

Signing up to the (I'm not kidding) Pink Stinks campaign, the (*Orwell turns in grave*) "Justice Minister" Bridget Prentice says she wants to push shops such as the Early Learning Centre to stop stocking pink things.  No, seriously.

Apparently, this Minister of the Crown believes that it is wrong to have toys

"aimed particularly at either girls or boys"

Well, I think this is lunacy.  Political Correctness Gone Mad, as they say.  I've noticed the lack of guns and soldiers in toy shops in recent years, and I think it's a shame that the traditional boys' toys have been whittled away by this kind of bullying – we ought now to name and shame these absurd PC nannies before they make parents and families feel uncomfortable about cherishing a traditional girly childhood, too.

However, that's my view, and others will have different views – c'est la vie.  Let parents get on with things however they want, and if they think that pink is wrong per se, oh well, we're entitled to disagree. 

But the problem here is bigger than that, because of the involvement of a member of the Government.

Let me clarify the nature of my objection so as to avoid any misunderstanding:

  • Suggesting that girls should have role models other than "supermodels" – laudable.
  • Thinking that that position somehow means that pink is per se wrong for girls – nutty and silly but an unobjectionable view for parents.
  • Members of the Government trying to control what shops sell – absurd. Outrageous.

By Alex Deane

Beware the EHRC’s new ‘lifestyle database’

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

On Saturday, Big Brother Watch and the blogger Old Holborn combined to expose the Equality and Human Rights Commission's attempt to create an enormous database intended to catalogue our 'levels of equality'.

Ehrc_logo3 Freedom of Information requests sent out by Old Holborn reveal that the EHRC is in the process of creating a new 'Lifestyle database' which, through the use of information gathered from a variety of sources ranging from A&E records to child wellbeing surveys, will create a figure that the EHRC will then use to determine how equal we all are.

This database is likely to include records of sexuality, income and political leanings and would be available to be read by anyone ready to sign-up on the EHRC's website.

The full story is in the Daily Mail and you can read the actual FOI answers on Old Holborn's blog here.

Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, said:

“This intrusive database is being built without even the smallest consideration for privacy.

“When people go to hospital, they don’t think that information about their illness is going to be shared with the EHRC.

“When victims of crime talk to the police, they don’t think that facts about their lives will be recorded on an EHRC database.

“What possible right does the EHRC have to build this database, and then share what they’ve gathered with other people on their website?”

By Dylan Sharpe

In the name of anti-terrorism, photographers are being systematically bullied by the officious, self-important jobsworths of our overbearing state

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

There's been a rash of recent stories in the media about amateur photographers stopped and searched under s. 44 of the Terrorism Act.  Andrew White was arrested in Brighton for taking a picture of the Christmas lights.  The BBC's Jeff Overs was similarly quizzed for daring to take a picture of St Paul's, which must be one of the most photographed buildings in the world.

Philip Johnston has dedicated his column in the Telegraph to the issue today (recommended reading), and after the arrest of one of their photographers the issue is on the front page of the Independent.

Chips-1024x679 Radio 4 featured the issue this morning on the Today Programme, harking back to the story this summer of Alex Turner, arrested for taking a snap of his local chippie in Chatham.  Here is the offending photograph.  Outrageous!

Over at his site you will see the reasoned and rational correspondence he sent to the police about his quite wrongful arrest, to which no satisfactory answer has yet been given.  You will also see from the many comments there that we are far from alone in agreeing with him.

What did the officers possibly think he was doing wrong?  How could they possibly suggest that he was doing anything remotely connected with terrorism?  And how arrogant are those who supposedly protect us, to arrest him when he had the temerity to take a photograph of them?

By Alex Deane 

Scottish CCTV review in bizarre conclusions

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

As the BBC reports this morning, a report commissioned by the Scottish government into public space CCTV cameras north of the border has come up with some interesting topics of debate and some very bizarre conclusions.

CCTV Warning According to the report:

The estimated cost of operating (the 2,200 CCTV cameras) over the next three years is more than £40m.

But there had been little research into their effectiveness in preventing crime and disorder and they called for a debate on the use to which CCTV is put – whether it is to deter or detect crime or reduce public fear.

The researchers pointed out not all cameras were monitored all the time. They said: "Control rooms are not always staffed for the full 24 hours per day. CCTV cameras are not routinely 'patrolling' but tend to be 'parked' i.e. static."

So, effectiveness questionable; they are often unmonitored; and the entire system is likely to cost over £40 million in the next three years – one might think the researchers would advocate a more situation-specific policy and perhaps a few cut-backs on the continuing use of CCTV…but no.

The first detailed review of public space CCTV cameras in Scotland has said many are old and in need of urgent replacement.

There was a call for new systems to be introduced which are compatible with equipment in prosecutors' offices and courts to make the sharing of information easier and more effective.

The report also suggested new uses for cameras, such as linking them to tagging schemes for offenders and fitting cameras with speakers and lights which can be switched on when disorder occurs.

As we have noted before at BBW, residents in Scotland are subjected to more surveillance than any other group of people anywhere in the world. However this report, instead of seeing this as a negative and disproportionate to Scotland's size and levels of crime, has recommended more money is spent updating this overabundance of cameras.

Our heart goes out to you Scotland.

By Dylan Sharpe

Shmoozed hack pens fairytale ID card defence

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ID cards | 11 Comments

Angela Epstein, journalist at the Manchester Evening News and ID card cheerleader has today authored a typically desperate promotion of the ID card scheme after (in her own words) ‘a shmooze with home office minister Meg Hillier’. One can only imagine what such a meeting involved but if Hillier’s webcast is anything to go by, Ms Epstein must be very impressionable indeed.

Epstein ID card Epstein is one of 1,386 unusual individuals who have applied for the card - which is being trialled in Manchester (population 2,500,000) – and makes no effort to hide that she was ‘thrilled to be invited to be first in the queue’.

Her agonising attempt to put a mumsy feel to the benefits of the ID card scheme is wretched and her reasoning stretches no further than the standard defence that we have proven on several occasions is completely fatuous:

‘I personally can’t see what there is to lose if you’re a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide’

Time and time again Alan Johnson et al have tried to dupe the public with this feeble line but it misses the rotten principle. Everyone becomes a suspect and rather than being used as an investigative tool, a DNA database is the first port of call and ultimately it is the public who suffer.

‘But I genuinely felt proud and excited when I was finally handed my card. I loved seeing my name, face and the words British citizen on this tiny piece of plastic. That’s who I am, and why shouldn’t anyone know?’

Anyone who possesses a passport has their name on a slightly larger leather bound document but not many have a burning desire to band it around. One only has to cite the Jeremy Clarkson incident to highlight the importance of keeping your identity private.

The remainder of the article is just plain terrifying:

‘if it’s another weapon in the fight against identity fraud, illegal workers and terrorism, then that can only be for the good.’

Of course it can only be for the good. How could a titanic arsenal of surveillance possibly be a bad thing? Well there's the government's chronic record on data loss and data being stolen for a start. Or the problem of being fined if your information is found to be out of date.  

To conclude, Epstein seamlessly and quite bizarrely flows into Mills and Boon mode:

‘Slipping it into my purse and slinking off into the gloom of an icy winter afternoon, I felt like I was pocketing a piece of history.’

Here, it can safely be affirmed, ID cards are beyond the realms of sensuality, even for Angela. The sooner the Epsteins of this world wake up and smell the Victory Coffee the sooner we can attempt to regain our vanishing civil liberties.

By James Stannard

Big Brother Watch Newsletter 27.11.09

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

Dear Supporter,


This week has seen an almighty row erupt over the current government practice of retaining the DNA of innocent people for six years. The story began when an unnamed ex-senior police officer reported that the police were arresting people for ”everything if there is a power to do so” simply to increase the number of DNA profiles on the national database. This was a claim immediately denied by the government (to which I’ll return later), but the practice found a good deal of support including from the Crime and Security Editor of the Times, which prompted us to give a strongly-worded response. As we have said time and time again, DNA evidence is not infallible, whereas the practice of taking an innocent person’s DNA is a massive breach of privacy. The European Court has ruled against the current policy and Big Brother Watch will continue to oppose the practice until everybody who shouldn’t be on the database is removed.



Home Office Ministers try to sell their wares…and fail


The Home Secretary Alan Johnson, and Meg Hillier the Under-Secretary of State for Identity, both broke cover this week to defend their dodgy policies in front of the British public.


Ms Hillier was first up, conducting a webchat on the Manchester Evening News website in which she tried to sell the concept of identity cards to the unfortunate guinea pigs upon whom the scheme is being trialled. In an hour-long discussion the minister provided the largely angry participants with a series of stock answers and platitudes like “Most people I speak to are not concerned about the security of the passport database.” You can read further details here, but the chat is probably best summed up by a poll run during the event asking ‘will you be getting an ID card?’; after an hour of discussion the it stood at 97% no – 3% yes.


A day later, Alan Johnson wrote a short piece for the Guardian in which he defended the government’s DNA policy as his “dilemma”. The article made a series of claims based on unreferenced and unsubstantiated research and drew upon several cases in which DNA evidence was critical in securing a conviction, as if no crime had ever been solved without using the database. In total it was as dishonest and unconvincing a defence of the DNA database as we have seen since Big Brother Watch’s inception.



Blogs of the Week


Creating crimes, creates criminals - the Chief Inspector of Constabulary blames the ‘knee-jerk’ reactions and ‘noise’ of policy making for the decline in community policing and surge in spurious arrests.


Never mind the bollards - an ambulance in Peterborough is prevented from attending to an injured man by bollards activated by CCTV. The kicker – someone had unplugged the cable.


Labourlist blogger advocates swabbing babies and immigrants to build a DNA database - the clue is in the title. Shocking stuff and he’s a budding councillor.



Guerilla Sticker Photo of the Week

The Big Brother Watch Guerrilla Sticker Campaign yields its first photo submissions – our favourite is on the right. Beware Sodbury.


We’ve sent out over 3,000 stickers so far, so all those who have yet to send us back their photos, get your skates on, and you too could be exhibited in the newsletter.


If you have not yet asked for any stickers email your name and address to BBW, 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. 

Media Coverage

Daily Mail – Anti-terror tsar Lord West falls victim to own stop and search powers

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘The reality is that the number of successful prosecutions for terrorism offences resulting from these draconian stop and search powers was none when they were being used weekly, and none now they’re barely used at all.

‘What these new figures can’t undo is the embarrassment and anguish felt by the many people abused for no good reason under this now all-but abandoned power.’

TalkSport – Alex Deane interviewed by Ian Collins on the Late Show

Corus radio network, Canada – Alex Deane interviewed by Roy Green

Courts rely on ‘unreliable’ CCTV images

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

UNSW%20Logo An important article over at Australia's ABC Science, reporting on the work of Professor Gary Edmond from the University of New South Wales.  Professor Edmond is the author of an article in the latest edition of Current Issues in Criminal Justice in which significant questions are raised about the all-too-common court use of video and photographic footage from CCTV or ATMs as evidence in criminal cases.

The Professor believes that images compared to those of a prime suspect are carried out in a way that may encourage prejudice in favour of the police view:

"The courts don't impose a reliability standard on the use of these images as evidence," Professor Edmond said.

As Professor Edmond points out, images are usually compared to those of a prime suspect, but are also sometimes compared with photos of a range of people to eliminate suspects – on the basis of body height, for example. "Experts" in anthropology, anatomy and photography carry out the comparisons and are sometimes referred to as "face and body mappers" or "photo comparison experts". Juries also draw on evidence of images sometimes after listening to expert interpretations of these.

But Professor Edmond says there are two problems with the use of image comparison:

1) the procedures used for comparing images have never been validated, and comparisons are carried out in a way that may encourage prejudice in favour of the police view. 

Professor Edmond says there have been cases where image comparison by British experts have been found to be inaccurate, that reality is distorted in images.

It may be reliable when a suspect has a distinguishing feature and there are good quality CCTV images,  but when images are poor and experts are comparing facial features alone, there are serious complications.

The shape and size of someone's nose, for example, can look different depending on the distance they are from the camera, the angle of the camera, the type of lens used, shadows and lighting.

"It's not as straight forward as people often claim," Professor Edmond said. "Similarity in images may not be similarities in reality."

Professor Edmond says photo comparison experts have never provided any evidence to support the validity of their conclusions.

He says that courts should require tests that show how reliable experts are at identifying people by comparing images.

2) The police often tell photo comparison experts who their prime suspect is, compounding the psychological tendency to find similarities when given just two photos to compare.

Professor Edmond believed that in order to reduce such bias, it may be useful to use two experts to make a comparison. One expert could analyse the features of a CCTV photo, without seeing the prime suspect's photo, and their analysis could be compared with that from another expert viewing a photo of the prime suspect to see if there was any overlap.

The Professor believes that judges are reluctant to exclude potentially valuable evidence from a trial and the increasing availability of CCTV is providing more and more potential image evidence.

"The increasing availability of (so-called) evidence means the courts are responding regardless of whether they've actually got a credible way of dealing with it," he said.

"I think the technology is driving the law, even though the question of its reliability may not be adequately resolved yet."

Potential bias could be dealt with by both the prosecution and defence having their own photo comparison experts. But that would unfairly put the onus on the defendant to prove the method is unreliable.

"And it assumes the existence of a credible field when that is yet to be demonstrated."

Combined with all the other doubts about CCTV we've raised, it's food for thought, isn't it?

By Alex Deane

The right of the law abiding majority must be considered (reprised)

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 12 Comments

At the Conservative Party Conference earlier this year, the Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve announced his intention to allow the police to actively name and shame criminals in their local areas.

Wanted Poster At the time, Alex wrote a short piece entitled 'The right of the law abiding majority must be considered', in which he made the following assertion:

Those who will be affected most by this legislation are likely to have been convicted on multiple occasions and it is therefore wrong to describe this policy as outrageous or unjustified.
There have been many unjust incursions into our civil liberties in recent times, but this certainly isn't one of them.

Today we have been greeted with the news, as reported by the Telegraph, that:

Information on local offenders and their convictions will also only be online for a month and may not carry photographs after officers were told to consider any ""unjustifiably adverse effect" on the criminal.

Once again we are left wondering why the rights of the criminal are being placed before those of the victim and how this fits with the Government's 'Justice Seen, Justice Done campaign'.

The act of naming and shaming is among the most powerful tools in the police's armoury – far more powerful a deterrent than measures such as the ASBO or pathetic fining regime. It would be a shame to see the police handicapped by this latest measure.

By Dylan Sharpe

Smart Meters – coming to a boiler near you

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Privacy | 13 Comments

As reported by the BBC today, Energy Secretary Ed Miliband is set to announce the government's roll-out of Smart Meters in Parliament this afternoon.

Smart_meter For those unaware, the Smart Meter is a small device which provides users with a visual display allowing them to see exactly how much electricity and gas they are using and, importantly, then relays the data straight to your energy provider. It does this through the use of mobile phone technology and is several times more accurate than our current power meters.

While I can see some of the positives in using this technology, there also number of flaws in the proposal as it stands that are making us very nervous about this announcement.

The first is the estimated cost – £9bn (or £340 per household) for an annual average saving on your electricity bill of £28. This cost will not be handled solely by the government, so our tax money might be safe(ish). But if the £9bn is being borne by the energy companies, we all know it is going to be passed on to the consumer with much higher energy bills.

The second, and the problem more relevant to Big Brother Watch, is the complete vacuum in the plans where privacy and data is concerned.

To date the focus of the government and energy companies has been on making sure the customer cannot tamper with their Smart Meter. What there isn't is any guidance on how the information is being stored and who has access to it - but I suspect we’re looking at yet another database.

Then there is the issue of the government being able to access data which can actually tell a lot about your daily routine – the switching on and off of lights indicates when you leave the house etc.

The fear is that in a few years’ time the majority of households could find their homes harbouring a device which gives the state unfettered access to our energy habits and the accompanying ability to hold us to ransom for the amounts of electricity we consume.
Radio5logo I do not accept that in order to save our environment we have to sacrifice our right to privacy. At present the Smart Meter project looks poorly thought-through and potentially very dangerous.

I was on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday debating the merits and faults of Smart Meters with Business Correspondent, Nick Cosgrove and CEO of First:Utility, Mark Daeche. To listen to the discussion click the link below (approx 8 minutes long).

Dylan Sharpe on Radio 5 Live
By Dylan Sharpe

In the United States they have been having this debate for some time. I would urge those who are interested to read more about the privacy and intrusion fears over at Fausty's Blog.

Fairy light photographer has collar felt

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

On Monday I wrote about Jeff Overs, the in-house BBC photographer who was stopped and searched for taking photos of St Paul's at dusk. I also complained that it was only rarely such cases got the high-profile media coverage afforded to Jeff by being Andrew Marr's snapper of choice.

Christmaslights Today, going some way to redress the balance, the Daily Telegraph has brought a similarly nonsensical case to light.

As they report:

Andrew White, 33, from Brighton, East Sussex, had been taking pictures of the festive lights in nearby Burgess Hill on his way to work when two Police Community Support Officers began following him.

The female PCSOs stopped him and asked why he had been taking photos of the lights and whether he was a professional photographer.

Mr White, who works for a financial services firm, was forced to submit personal details to the officers under counter-terrorism laws because officers were concerned he was taking too many photos in a busy area.

Of course, Sussex Police have trotted out the usual 'protecting public safety' excuses but as I said earlier this week, these cases are not isolated.

Maybe it is time that Officers and PCSOs were censured for showing such a complete lack of common sense?

By Dylan Sharpe  

- – UPDATE – -

Watch Alex Deane on BBC South Today discussing this incident here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctBv3jbXQOg