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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

EU DNA Database Back on the Agenda

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Data Protection, Databases, DNA database, Europe, International | 1 Comment

dna-3Following Monday night’s confused debate on EU Justice and Home Affairs powers it has been revealed that the Government is embarking upon a scheme that would give European states limited access to the UK DNA database and potentially pave the way to a linking of the UK and EU databases.

This is a worrying development, made more so by the fact that, as the Financial Times reported, the move seems to have been made to appease certain member states who were concerned about the UK’s withdrawal from other EU police schemes.

It is disappointing that after sticking to their promise to stay out of the wider Prüm Convention, the Government seems to be getting close to implementing it in all but name, prioritising the wishes of other states over the safety of its own citizens.

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New Report: Patient confidentiality broken 6 times a day

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home, Research and reports | 10 Comments

3797160719_337b4742e7_bOur new report, NHS Data Breaches (PDF), highlights the  scale of data breaches in the NHS. The research reveals examples of medical data being lost, shared on social media, and inappropriately shared with third parties.

The report shows that between 2011 to 2014, there have been at least 7,255 breaches. This is the equivalent to 6 breaches every day. Examples of the data breaches include:

  • At least 50 instances of data being posted on social media
  • At least 143 instances of data being accessed for “personal reasons”
  • At least 124 instances of cases relating to IT systems
  • At least 103 instances of data loss or theft
  • At least 236 instances of data being shared inappropriately via Email, letter or Fax
  • At least 251 instances of data being inappropriately shared with a third party
  • At least 115 instances of staff accessing their own records.
  • There have been at least 32 resignations during the course of disciplinary proceedings.
  • There is 1 court case pending, for a breach of the Data Protection Act. In this instance the individual may have also resigned prior to proceedings.

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Parliament to vote on the European Arrest Warrant

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Europe, European Arrest Warrant, Extradition | 2 Comments

EThis afternoon MPs will take part in a vital debate, the main point of which is to decide whether or not Britain should opt back into the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). Big Brother Watch has been clear in the past that the EAW risks seeing UK citizens extradited for minor crimes and in some instances forced to spend months in detention before their case even comes to trial.

In an article for ConservativeHome Mark Field MP, a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee argues that the EAW is vital for tackling serious international crime, such as terrorism and large scale fraud. Whilst the measure was introduced in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, as part of the EU’s attempts to combat international terrorism and cross-border crime, there has been a significant shift in its focus in the intervening years.

The original aims of the EAW are certainly laudable, but it has been subject to severe mission creep since 2002. This has led to a situation whereby warrants have been sent to the UK for the extradition of a man guilty of stealing a wheelbarrow and some tools or another who had committed the crime of piglet rustling. The number of frivolous requests and the resulting administrative burden this has created is clearly shown by a report by the European Parliamentary Research Service: in 2011  the UK received 6760 EAWs, of these 5761 were not executed.

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GCHQ Chief Criticises Tech Firms

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in GCHQ, Google, Online privacy, RIPA, Social Networking, Surveillance | 2 Comments

serversIn an unusual step the new head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, has written an article  accusing technology companies of aiding terrorism and failing to help with investigations. The article is entirely vague in its criticisms of the tech companies, giving little detail of what information GCHQ is failing to receive from the tech companies.

The article in  the Financial Times states that “the largest US technology companies that dominate the web” were “in denial” about the roles they played in helping terror groups evade intelligence agencies. He went on to argue that these websites had become the “command and control networks of choice” for terrorists.

What is concerning is that there is no indication that the tech companies already assist law enforcement and intelligence agencies at all. When in fact there are official treaties (the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) and voluntary schemes with individual companies. For instance, in August 2013 Facebook published its first transparency report. It showed that the UK requested data on 1,975 occasions, of these only 32% were rejected. As well as this in 2012 UK law enforcement bodies made the most requests for information from Skype, nearly double the amount made in Germany.

Clearly, if UK agencies want information about individuals that they believe pose a threat to national security there is a proper process to follow and if this process is followed the data will be released. What is more urgent is the need for greater Government transparency around the requests it makes. It should not be up US companies to publish data on how our law enforcement bodies use their powers.

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More RIPA Revelations

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in GCHQ, Online privacy, Privacy, RIPA, Surveillance | 2 Comments

Image3Yet more evidence has come to light to show that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is woefully out of date.

It has been revealed that GCHQ, has the ability to request large amounts of un-analysed communications from foreign intelligence agencies without first obtaining a warrant. The documents, obtained in the course of a case brought before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), show that the use of a warrant was not necessary if it is “not technically feasible” for GCHQ to obtain one.

This is not the first revelation from the case, which was brought by a number of groups including Liberty and Privacy International. In June this year it was revealed that messages sent via platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are classed as “external communications” even if they have been sent between UK citizens. This means that there is no need to apply for a warrant before collecting the information.

As it stands the legislation being used to authorize surveillance was passed before the advent of social media, which revolutionized the way in which we communicate. When MPs were debating this bill they could not have been expected to anticipate the dramatic change in how we would communicate with each other after the launch of Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). As a result RIPA has not kept pace with technology and is now open to worrying interpretations.

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Support the right for journalists to protect their sources

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 3 Comments

commons dayLord Strasburger, Big Brother Watch’s advisory council member, has tabled an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which would stop the police from being able to access journalists’ phone records to identify their sources without permission from a judge. The amendment is to be debated on Tuesday, and we are calling on you to contact members of the House of Lords to ask them to lend it their support. You can find a directory of Lords here.

Supporting the amendment, the deputy prime minister stated that: “It’s incredibly important in a free society that journalists should be able to go after information where there’s a clear public interest to do so, without fear of being snooped upon or having all of their files kind of rifled through without clear justification.”

The amendment follows concerns that a loophole in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) is being exploited to allow access to private information without judicial authorisation. This is in light of the revelations that journalists at the Mail on Sunday and the Sun had secretly had their phone records obtained.

Commenting on his amendment, Lord Strasburger said: “The Liberal Democrats are serious about protecting whistle-blowers and the freedom of the press to expose corruption through the use of confidential sources. Ripa must be changed to close the loophole that the police have been using with virtually no scrutiny.

“Of course this is not the only major flaw in Ripa and I wish more newspapers had backed the Guardian when it exposed the widespread collection by the state of phone and other records of ordinary citizens through the Tempora Project and other secret surveillance activities.”

Today we have also released a report on how police forces are using ‘directed surveillance’ powers permitted under RIPA, calling on the government to introduce judicial authorisation for all use of surveillance powers, increased transparency around how the powers are being used, and for the right of redress for those who have been spied on.

Off The Record: How the police use surveillance powers

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Research and reports | 5 Comments
police-2Today we are publishing a reporthighlighting the true scale of police forces’ use of surveillance powers. The report comes at a time when the powers have faced serious criticism, following revelations that police have used them to access journalists’ phone records.
The research focuses on the use of ‘directed surveillance’ contained in the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by police forces; a form of covert surveillance conducted in places other than residential premises or private vehicles which is deemed to be non-intrusive, but is still likely to result in personal information about the individual being obtained.
Although the report details how directed surveillance powers were authorised more than 27,000 times over a three year period, police forces are not compelled to record any other statistics; therefore we cannot know the exact number of individuals that these authorisations relate to.
As part of the investigation into the use of RIPA by police, a request for details of ‘covert human intelligence’ (informers) and ‘intrusive surveillance’ (covert surveillance carried out in residential premises or private vehicles) was also submitted. However the request was rejected by forces as they believe releasing the information would negatively impact on police capability
Despite the law being changed in 2012 to stop local authorities using the same powers without a magistrate’s approval, police forces do not require any such permission. The report proposes three measures that should be introduced, including:
  • requirement for police forces to publish data on how often and why these powers are used,
  • judicial approval of all surveillance operations
  • the right for subjects of surveillance to be informed.

The police should not be able to keep the details secret of how and why members of the public are spied on. To do so whilst not having to seek a courts approval to use the powers is simply unacceptable. Local authorities now have to justify how they will snoop on members of the public and it is about time that this authorisation procedure became the norm, not the exception.

Any member of the public that has been put under surveillance should be told that that has been the case when there is no risk to an on-going investigation. This is standard practice in a number of other countries with it being recognised as being an important oversight mechanism. It is clear that this added level of accountability will ensure that the public will only face being spied on when it is truly necessary.

Join the Big Brother Watch Team

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | Leave a comment

We are looking for an ambitious intern to join our team to assist with research projects, social media outreach and event management. This role is flexible; however we would ideally like the candidate to be able to work at least 2 days a week.

Full details of the role can be found here (PDF)

The ideal candidate will:

  • Be familiar with Microsoft Word, Excel, Internet research and web content management.
  • Be able to work under pressure and be part of a dynamic national campaigning team.
  • Be politically engaged
  • Have a good knowledge of national, regional and online media.
  • Be able to assist with content management and pay close attention to detail.
  • Be confident and competent in oral and written communication.
  • Be sympathetic with the aims of Big Brother Watch.
  • Be able to work in our central London offices for a minimum of eight weeks

The closing date for applications is Friday 14th November. Interviews will take place as and when a suitable application in submitted. The closing date may be extended if a suitable candidate has not been found.

More than 120,000 requests for communications data by police forces

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 6 Comments

shutterstock_42647761It appears that the press have finally started to understand the intrusive nature of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, for both innocent members of the public and journalists.

As part of our written evidence submitted to the Joint Committee on Draft Communications Data Bill in 2012, we submitted figures obtained through he Freedom of Information Act, highlighting police forces’ use of RIPA to access communications data for the period 2009-12. The figures highlighted that there were more than 120,000 requests for communications data by police in the year 2011-12.

We are re-publishing that information today, and it can be accessed here.

The significant variations in the level of use of communications data and the variations in the numbers of requests internally rejected starkly highlights a clear issue around training and education within forces about making best use of information available, where necessary and proportionate, and also raises questions about the consistency of oversight. Also interestingly, only Humberside Police was able to provide us with a breakdown of the offence categories it has used communications data for.

The Government needs to urgently address the fact that the Interception of Communications Commissioner has warned that spying powers are being over-used by some police forces. Quite simply, if the police can’t get it right with the powers they already have then it is completely irresponsible for the Home Office to be planning on increasing those powers. The inadequacy and inconsistency of the records being kept by public authorities about how they are using these powers is woefully inadequate. Correcting this would not require new laws so it should not wait until after the election.

If the Government fails to address these serious points, we can already know that there will be many more innocent members of the public who will be wrongly spied on and accused. This is simply unacceptable.

A short analysis of the Home Secretary’s speech to the 2014 Conservative Party Conference

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 5 Comments

The Home Secretary gave her speech to the Conservative Party Conference today, focusing on a number of counter-terrorism measures. Here we dissect the key points:

1) Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, or TPIMs, will be strengthened

TPIMs have not proven to be an improvement on control orders and have been attacked by figures on both sides of the debate. It is our belief that the current system and proposed new measures fail to facilitate the prosecution or conviction of suspected terrorists. The Government should allow the use of intercept evidence in court as a way of helping to resolve any evidence gap.

To read our briefing note on TPIMS click here

2) If there is a majority Conservative government at the next election, the Communications Data Bill will return.

The figures quoted by the Home Secretary in her speech relating to an inability to access communications data are not new, and when pushed for an evidential basis for those figures the Home Office hasn’t been able to make them stand up. When the Bill was being pushed by the Home Office in in 2012 we also heard the example regarding the Soham murder investigation being prevented through a lack of communications data. This was successfully rebutted at the time.

It remains true that it would be reckless of the Conservative’s to attempt to to legislate on further surveillance powers before a comprehensive, independent review of the existing legal framework has taken place. A broad political consensus has emerged in support of a review, with the Deputy Prime Minister, the Shadow Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Committee all recognising that the public should know more about how our surveillance laws are being used and whether the current oversight mechanisms are adequate.

We know from examples in the US that there is far more information that could be published without jeopardising security. Greater transparency would build trust and improve accountability yet the data being recorded by the police and agencies is seriously inadequate. This does not require legislation and should be addressed by the Home Secretary without delay.

3) Prevent will be made a statutory duty for all public sector organisations.

In her speech the Home Secretary said “I want to see new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the existing laws relating to terrorism. I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred. So both policies – Banning Orders and Extremism Disruption Orders – will be in the next Conservative manifesto.”

The Home Secretary freely admitted that as part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, the Home Office will assume responsibility for a new counter-extremism strategy that goes beyond terrorism.

The fact that these Extremist Disruption Orders won’t only apply to potential terrorists, but simply to those who present a threat to public disorder, clearly highlights that this policy is the thin end of the wedge.

We were told that the National Extremist Database would contain details of those who posed a nations security, yet we know members of the public who have done little more than organise meetings on environmental issues are on the database. We already have a system to tackle extremists that cloaks itself in mystery, refusing to divulge simple details of how many people are on the Extremist Database and the criteria for being added to it.

In a democratic country, it is wholly wrong for people to be labelled an ‘extremist’ and face having major restrictions placed on their freedom without facing a due legal process and a transparent and accountable system. The Home Secretary must think very carefully about the international precedent that this policy would set and consider the potential consequences for members of the public.