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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

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.

Big Brother Watch at the party conferences

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 7 Comments

commons dayThis year Big Brother Watch will be hosting the fringe event ‘Civil Liberties in a digital age’ at Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats Party Conferences.  We very much hope that you are able to join us at one of these events.


Date: Monday 22nd September

Time: 15:45 – 16:45

Venue: TechCentral Marquee, Manchester Central (secure zone, immediately after the security check point)


  • David Blunkett, Member of Parliament for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and former Home Secretary
  • Steve Reed, Member of Parliament for Croydon North
  • Stephen Deadman, Group Privacy Officer for Vodafone
  • Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch (Chairman)


Date: Monday 29th September

Time: 12:00 – 13:00

Venue: TechCentral Marquee, ICC (secure zone, immediately after the security check point)


  • John Whittingdale, Chairman of Culture, Media and Sport Committee and Member of Parliament  for Maldon,
  • Dominic Raab, Member of Parliament for Esher and Walton
  • Stephen Deadman, Group Privacy Officer for Vodafone
  • Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch (Chairman)


Date: Sunday 5th October

Time: 09:30 – 10:30 (breakfast will be provided)

Venue: TechCentral, Etive in the SECC (secure zone, the room is situated on the ground floor level, behind the Lomond auditorium.)


  • Norman Baker, Minister of State for Crime Prevention and Member of Parliament for Lewes
  • Julian Huppert, Member of Parliament for Cambridge
  • Stephen Deadman, Group Privacy Officer for Vodafone
  • Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch (Chairman)

 We will also be launching our 2015 general election manifesto ahead of the conferences. More details to follow shortly.

As well as our own fringes, we will also be speaking at the following:


Build your own manifesto

Fringe Organiser: Freedom Association

Date: Monday 29 September

Time: 15:15

Venue: Freedom Zone, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Broad Street, Birmingham, B1 2EP (outside of secure zone)


  • Nick de Bois MP (Member of the Justice Committee)
  • Emma Carr (Director, Big Brother Watch)
  • Sam Bowman (Research Director, Adam Smith Institute)
  • Adam Memon (Head of Economic Research, Centre for Policy Studies)
  • Matthew Sinclair (Senior Consultant, Europe Economics).

Social Media Freedom

Fringe Organiser: Freedom Association

Date: Tuesday 30 September

Time: 1630

Venue: Freedom Zone, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Broad Street, Birmingham, B1 2EP (outside of secure zone)


  • Jack Hart (Communications Manager, The Freedom Association)
  • College of Policing representative
  • Emma Carr [Chairman] (Director, Big Brother Watch).

Don’t Spy On Us: Surveillance, where do you draw the line?

Fringe Organiser: Don’t Spy On Us Coalition

Date: Monday 29th September

Time: 1700-1800

Venue: TechCentral Marquee, ICC (secure zone, immediately after the security check point)


  • Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP,
  • Emma Carr, Director – Big Brother Watch;
  • Thomas Hughes, Director – ARTICLE19;
  • Paul Johnson, Deputy Editor – The Guardian;
  • Mark Stephens, Chair – Global Network Initiative;
  • Mark Wallace, Executive Editor – ConservativeHome (Chair).

Lib Dems set out their (draft) 2015 general election Civil Liberties Pledges

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Surveillance | 2 Comments

http://www.libdems.org.uk/The Lib Dems have well and truly kicked off the next election cycle with the publication of their pre-manifesto (PDF); essentially a draft of what will become their manifesto in 2015.

The document contains a number of pledges on civil liberties, including:

  • The introduction of a new Freedoms Bill to protect the public from state intrusion and extend access to information.
  • Passing a Digital Bill of Rights, to protect people from “unacceptable intrusion” by organisations and give them more control of their data.
  • Identifying alternatives to secret courts.
  • Supporting net neutrality and the freedom of the internet.
  • Ensuring the proper oversight of our security services.
  • Safeguards for stop and search will also be improved, this will include tighter guidance and mandatory body-worn cameras for officers deployed with Section 60 stop and search powers.

The idea of a new Freedoms Bill is encouraging; the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 introduced some real improvements. It is necessary that any new Bill continues on these lines and extends safeguards to protect members of the public from unwarranted and excessive state surveillance. Key to this is the expansion of judicial authorisation for surveillance warrants, for more details on how this can be achieved please read our paper on the subject: Enhancing surveillance transparency: A UK policy framework (PDF).

The idea of a Digital Bill of Rights is something that Big Brother Watch has supported for some time. It is vital that the personal data of members of the public is given greater protection, something that a Bill of this kind has the potential to do. It is also clear that the free and neutral nature of the internet is under threat by both government institutions and private companies. If this continues, other countries around the world have threatened policies that would lead to the “Balkanisation” of the Internet, wherein countries no longer trust each other and set about carving the web into separate national internets. Any proposals should aim to reflect Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s call to safeguard the principle that the internet should be an “open, neutral” system.

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Office of Surveillance Commissioner’s Warns of Illegal Social Media Snooping

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 3 Comments

Image3The Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC), led by Chief Surveillance Commissioner The Rt Hon Sir Christopher Rose, has published its annual report. The  signed off the report. The report highlights that for 2013-14:

  • Intrusive Surveillance authorisations has increased from 362 to 392
  • Directed Surveillance by law enforcement agencies (LEAs) has increased from 9,515 to 9,664
  • Directed Surveillance by public authorities (PAs) has decreased from 5,827 to 4,412
  • Active LEA Covert Human Intelligence Sources – 4,377 were authorised, 3,025 remain authorised
  • Active Covert Human Intelligence Sources (non-LEA) – 53 were authorised.

The Commissioner notes that the information included in the report is for 100% of LEAs and 96.6% of all other PAs. However, he does note that “I am once again slightly disappointed that a few public authorities appear to treat my request for statistical returns as an option” and that “I have therefore decided that, as from next year, those public authorities which have failed to respond within the set deadline will be named in my annual report.” The Commissioner also raises the fact that there have been a number of occasions where senior officers have failed to meet with inspectors. These comments would therefore indicate that amongst some LEA and PA’s there is a problem of the OSC not being taken seriously?

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Briefing Note: Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Control Orders, Terrorism Legislation, TPIM | 4 Comments

iStock_000005413496Small[1]In an address to Parliament on 1st September 2014, the Prime Minister announced a series of new measures to assist with combating terrorist threats. Included in this was the declaration that the Government would “introduce new powers to add” to the current system of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). Specifically, it was mooted that this would involve expanding them to include “enhanced” exclusion zones and a reintroduction of relocation orders.

TPIMs were introduced to replace control orders in 2011. An individual can be placed under a TPIM if the intelligence services “reasonably believe” that they are involved in terrorist-related activities. They can also be imposed on foreign nationals that the Government are unable to deport.

It is our belief that:

  • TPIMs have not proven to be an improvement on control orders and have been attacked by figures on both sides of the debate.
  • The current system or 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.

We have created a briefing note (PDF) on the background of TPIMs, including:

  • What are TPIMs?
  • What were Control Orders?
  • The problems of TPIMs
  • Relocation and Exclusion
  • Alternative Systems (including the use of intercept evidence in court)

Another Day another Data Breach

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Data Protection, Databases, Medical Records, NHS, Privacy | 1 Comment

3797160719_337b4742e7_bIn what is becoming an ever more regular occurrence for the NHS, it has been reported that the East Midlands Ambulance Service has lost a disk containing the notes of 42,000 patients’ who had been treated by paramedics in the last few months.

This incident once again underlines the dangers of organisations holding increasing amounts of personal information about individuals both electronically or in paper format. It seems obvious that the greater the amount of information that is held in one place, the more likely it is to go missing, either by accident or as the result of a deliberate breach. Indeed, just last week Kent Social Care Professionals unintentionally sent out an email containing the names, addresses and phone numbers of 120 elderly and vulnerable individuals to nearly 200 people.

Accidental leaks such as this make the need for proper data protection training amongst staff painfully apparent. If an organisation knows that it is going to hold large amounts of personal information, about staff or customers, it should ensure that its employees know their responsibilities under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Of course this cannot help to stop those who wish to purposely breach data protection law. This can only be achieved by improving the sanctions that are available to punish those who seek to misuse personal information.

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