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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

We’ve got so much CCTV, guidance isn’t enough – now we have a regulator

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

Cctv dome Bonfires were lit, fatted calves were sacrificed and sparklers were sparkled up and down the land today at the news of the creation of the office of the CCTV Regulator.

I jest.  Of course, given where we are, if he actually acts as a brake on bad behaviour and encourages good behaviour then the regulator is a good thing – because CCTV is now so ubiquitous, so pervasive and so intrusive that we need someone to be responsible for usage and abusage.  But that rather begs the question, doesn't it..?  Should we have so much CCTV?

I'm not a technophobe absolutist – there is an important role for technology in law enforcement – but it’s a question of proportion: CCTV is now the single most heavily-funded crime prevention measure operating outside the criminal justice system, accounting for more than three quarters of spending on crime prevention by the Home Office.

We ought to learn from the fact that we’re the only country that’s gone so far down this path.  The Shetland Islands has more CCTV cameras than San Francisco Police Department.

By Alex Deane

Private security groups move into frontline policing

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

Last week I wrote about The Mall in Norwich, which had given its security guards police powers to fine and detain trouble-makers despite the guards having only minimal training.

FivePolicemen Now, the Financial Times is reporting that G4S - a FTSE 100 security group - has begun to supply full teams of investigators on complex criminal cases.

As they report:

John Shaw, who recently took charge of the G4S policing business, said: “We have a team of 30 of our guys in one force on a major investigation right now, practically doing all of the roles except that of the senior investigating officer.”

Mr Shaw conceded the push by the private sector into areas once deemed off-limits would be resisted by some officers and needed to be done in collaboration with forces. But he argued the squeeze on law enforcement budgets meant all police roles were “up for grabs” except those requiring powers of arrest.

This is a genuinely worrying development. The police are not perfect, but they are accountable and bodies such as the IPCC and interventions from the Home Office are generally enough to make sure that when it comes to bad policing, the culprits are identified, punished and the victims compensated.

Private security firms would not have these same checks and balances. We cannot FOI them; we cannot hold them to account for having been trained or employed at the taxpayers' expense; and it is only a matter of time before a private security officer does something wrong and is quietly released out the back door.

It doesn't matter how 'squeezed' budgets are – police powers should only be held by the police.

By Dylan Sharpe 

Council of the (last) week – Liverpool!

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ID cards | 2 Comments

We are a tad late with this one, but it is still certainly worth giving full exposure and our most hearty of congratulations to Liverpool City Council.

LiverpoolCL Their eponymous Premier League team may be struggling, but the Council - which has recently been named the most improved in the country - last week voted to oppose the introduction of ID cards in the city.

The motion, passed on 9th December, said it did not believe ID cards and the accompanying database would prevent crime, terrorism or illegal immigration and criticised the Prime Minister for giving the impression at the last Labour Conference that ID cards would not be introduced while "clearly preparing for these pilot schemes".

They also said that they would actively refuse to cooperate with any plans to promote the National Identity Scheme and were prepared to work with organisations campaigning against the scheme, including our good friends No2ID, to "raise awareness among Liverpool citizens of the dangers of the ID card and database scheme".

And while I'm talking about Liverpool, I'd like to award a second Big Brother Watch round of applause to the majority of Liverpool councillors who saw off the proposal, put forward by Liverpool Primary Care Trust, to rate films showing smoking as 18 certificates.

It seems that we have found the antithesis of Sandwell Council. Just 93 miles may separate these two authorities but it's an ocean in terms of their thinking on personal privacy and liberty.

By Dylan Sharpe

12-year-old suspended for ‘crisp dealing’

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

A 12-year-old caught selling crisps at a school with a “healthy food policy” has been suspended by his headteacher.

Joelbradley Joel Bradley, a pupil at Liverpool's Cardinal Heenan High School, had already been caught selling sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks at a marked-up price, and when he was found a second time selling a packet of Discos for 50p, the school sent him home. 

The headmaster, Dave Forshaw, told the Daily Mail:

"We are a healthy school and proud of it. If parents are not happy then they are perfectly free to take their children to a school that allows pupils to sell these things and allows a father to sell them outside on the pavement"

There are two notes of caution I feel I must add. The first is that Joel's dad had previously been found to be selling sweets and drinks from a van outside the school which, although legal, shows a massive amount of disrespect for the school's policy. The second is that Joel was undoubtedly breaking the rules as laid out by the school.

However, this will be a permanent black mark on a young boy's school record. It is also likely to exacerbate the behavioural problems of a pupil who was not really guilty of anything other than showing a bit of entrepreneurial spirit.

In essence, the school has suspended a boy because it can't convince its pupils to eat healthily. The head has picked the easy target rather than face up to the underlying problem and potentially scarred a young man's education in the process. 

By Dylan Sharpe

Given that the Government is revising the child contact vetting database, why not consider going the whole hog – and scrap it?

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

Blog-38-ed-balls1 Following significant criticisms, covered by Dylan earlier in the week, Ed Balls and co have admitted there are significant problems with the "Independent Safeguarding Authority" vetting database for people coming into contact with children, and have started making major revisions to it.  One can't help but notice that said revisions remove from the vetting requirements the most potent critics of the scheme, such as high-profile authors accustomed to visiting schools, but still – it's a good development.

However, now that the scheme is being revisited, Balls and his coleagues should consider cancelling it per se.  There is no pressing need for it.  Our national obsession with paedophilia, of which this scheme is a reflection, makes children no safer, whilst – by harming the culture of volunteerism upon which so much of civic society in our country depends – it objectively threatens to make the lives of many children much worse. 

Indeed, the Government could make a virtue of having listened to the voices of many people in carrying out such a move.  It would also greatly benefit a constituency about which the Labour Party apparently cares a great deal – that is, the poorest in society, whose children depend disproportionately on such volunteerism, as their families are unable to buy into the kind of privately run extra-curricular activities which would be able to afford (and willing to comply with) the accreditation requirements of the vetting scheme.  Whilst by no means claiming to be the first to come up with it, I've not seen this point made before in the course of this debate.

By Alex Deane

Tiger Woods hands out injunctions

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action | 1 Comment

Tiger swings Tiger "suddenly it's all gone so terribly wrong" Woods has injuncted the British press to stop talking about his love life.

So good job – that's that barn door shut.  But the horse had not only already bolted, it had slipped out of town and is living under an assumed identity in Walton-on-the-Naze.

First of all, what real good could it possibly do, even from his perspective?  Does he think we won't hear the scurrilous rumours anyway?  Does he think that the commentary online, shorn of the relatively restraining influence of mainstream commentary, will be less tawdry and sensationalist?

Secondly, we've written before about restraining the press from reporting things, in the Carter Ruck context.- about how Britain's libel laws are harming journalism.  Here's it's slightly different, admittedly, as what's being injuncted is titillating rather than serious.  but there's an important point about the nature of freedom of speech to be made, and furthermore where this story lies on the titillating / serious scale is a judgment that I have made.  As long as you're happy having what constitutes your news decided for you by me, that's fine.  If you're not, then it's probably not fine.  The fact that I don't care about the goings-on in the life of Tiger "suddenly it's all gone so terribly wrong" Woods hardly means that nobody does, does it?  Nor are they necessarily interested in the story only from a cheap and titillating perspective.

Because there are people who will genuinely wish to know about his life, viewing him as an erstwhile role model they had looked up to, and viewing his pecadilloes, if true, as being symptoms of rank hypocrisy which rob him of that status.  His carefully manufactured, wholesome image might be thought to be punctured by these "revelations" and a discussion of such things interests some people.  Why shouldn't they be able to discuss them?  He chose to live in this way when it raked in millions – they might say – why can't we discuss it now that it's not quite so rosy? 

The extent to which serious journalism seeps into info-tainment is also something one should consider.  Scurrilous suggestions about Michael Jackson eventually led to criminal trial processes (albeit not a conviction, a fact perhaps connected with large out-of-court settlements).  Cheap slurs against Jeremy Thorpe, former leader of the Liberal Party, led to his trial for attempted murder.  John Profumo and Christine Keeler.  Multiple celebrities and drug trials/convictions: Robert Downey Junior. Pete Doherty. Matthew McConaughey.  And so on.  Viewed from that perspective, it is very hard to decide where "serious" journalism ends and trash begins.

All in all – my instinct is against any incursion of free speech.  Whilst I realise and appreciate that that right is not absolute, it is nevertheless very important in a free society and the threshold must be set very high to breach it.  Tiger "suddenly it's all gone so terribly wrong" Woods' I don't like the way they're talking about me hardly comes near satisfying that.

By Alex Deane

Celtic coverage

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

Dylan has already written about the really quite weird "conclusions" of the latest CCTV review in Scotland, during which the establishment rallied round to sing the praises of Scottish surveillance. 

But I thought I'd take the opportunity to highlight the work of CameraWatch, who have challenged that non-conclusion with some good research.

Meanwhile, informed sources speculate that a 78% increase in their Forensic Science budget means that the Irish are finally about to build a DNA database… at the same time that they are debating the merits of their CCTV network.

Small world, isn't it?

By Alex Deane

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