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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

Civil Society Briefing on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Research and reports | 6 Comments

commons dayThe Civil Society groups behind the Don’t Spy On Us coalition have produced a briefing on the fast-track Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (PDF).

You can read our initial analysis of the emergency legislation announcement, as well as our amendment recommendations here.


The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill was published on 10th July 2014 following a press conference given by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister announcing emergency surveillance legislation. They indicated that the leader of the Opposition had already given Labour’s support to the Bill following private cross-party discussions and this was confirmed by the Shadow Home Secretary in the Chamber later in the day. The Bill is now due to receive all its substantive stages in the House of Commons next Tuesday 16th July. The Lords will be invited to pass the Bill on Wednesday and the Commons will consider any Lords amendments on Thursday. Royal Assent is to be granted before summer recess and the legislation will come into effect immediately. Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is  therefore effectively neutered and it is unlikely that the Bill will be substantively amended.

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Big Brother Watch picks up Internet Villain award on behalf of NSA and GCHQ

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 3 Comments

Internet-Villain-GENERAL-300x300It was somewhat ironic that yesterday of all days the Internet Service Providers Awards were held in London. Big Brother Watch were invited to pick up the tongue in cheek award of ‘Internet Villain’ on behalf of the winners (who would obviously not be attending).

The shortlist of finalists were selected by the ISPA Council in recognition of their achievements in hindering the industry. The category stated: “The Internet Villain category recognises individuals or organisations that have upset the Internet industry and hampered its development – those who the industry loves to hate.”

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Surveillance Transparency is Now More Important Than Ever

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Home | 9 Comments

With the announcement of emergency legislation on the retention and interception of communications data the question of safeguarding the privacy of individuals should be foremost in the minds of legislators.

However the speed that the Bill is tabled to progress at raises concerns over the amount of scrutiny it will receive. If the Government wants to force communication service providers to retain citizens’ data then they must be prepared to open the system to a greater deal of transparency than is already in place.

As Big Brother Watch has repeatedly pointed out it is possible to increase the level of transparency around surveillance without compromising security. In the US the Department of Justice publishes information provided by federal and state officials on orders authorizing or approving interceptions of wire, oral, or electronic communications in annual reports.

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What could possibly go wrong with an EU-wide DNA database?

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Databases, DNA database, Europe, European Arrest Warrant, Extradition | 3 Comments

dna-3Over the weekend you may have read about the Government’s plans for more policing powers to be transferred over to the EU, including the prospect of the UK joining a Europe-wide DNA database. Considering a debate is planned for Thursday on the current set of Justice and Home Affairs opt-outs, these plans seem absurdly premature.

You can read our briefing note on the reported plans and our concerns about the problems with the current system here.

There are some fundamental problems with the UK’s DNA database (DNAD) that need urgently addressing before the Government even thinks about allowing EU Member States to have direct access to the data. These problems are outlined in our 2012 report (pdf), which was published following the reforms made by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

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Lack of UK surveillance transparency exposed once again

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in GCHQ, International, PRISM, Surveillance | Leave a comment

filesWith the publication of the second report by the US’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Board (PCLOB), the ball is now firmly in the UK Government’s court. The report added to the US’s response to the revelations made by Edward Snowden and places the lack of a response on this side of the Atlantic in stark contrast.

The report focused on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows authorisation for surveillance to be “conducted within the United States but targeting only non-US persons reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.”

Whilst it was generally favourable to the US intelligence agencies and their activities, the report did make a series of recommendations. These included revising the NSA’s targeting procedures to include a set of criteria for determining the “foreign intelligence values” of a target and a written explanation for why a target has been selected and what information surveillance is likely to return. Perhaps the most interesting section concerns efforts aimed at improving accountability and transparency within the US intelligence community.


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Briefing Note – Mandatory Installation of Event Data Recorders: The eCall System

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Research and reports | 5 Comments

Concerns have been raised in recent weeks regarding the European Commission’s plans for all new cars to be installed with event data recorders in order to enable the eCall system.We have produced a briefing (PDF) to explain the background of the policy, the concerns that have been raised and the other potential uses for event data recorders once they have been installed. The key points raised in our briefing are:

  • There is an important distinction to be made between eCall and the Event Data Recorders (EDRs). Whilst the eCall system may not record the location of the car constantly, the EDR does have that capability.
  • There are concerns that the EDRs ability to gather extensive data can and will be misused as:
    • the data could be accessed by hackers to track individuals’ location.
    • insurance companies can use this to promote personalised insurance quotes by recording how individuals drive.
    • police forces have already been using eCall systems to track suspicious motorists.
  • The installation of the EDR will be mandatory, a move that goes against British principles of liberty and freedom of choice.
  • The eCall system is not cost efficient nor will it have a significant impact on safety in the UK.

The Response to Revenge Porn Should Be Level Headed, Not a Knee Jerk Reaction

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 5 Comments

Image3A debate has erupted around revenge pornography and whether new legislation is required to tackle the problem of jilted lovers posting sexually explicit photographs online. Whilst there is no doubt that these occurrences are deeply damaging and upsetting for the individuals involved, the Government must ensure that any new laws created to police what is posted on the internet is done so with a clear head and not in the heat of the moment.

Yesterday Chris Grayling MP, the Justice Secretary, said yesterday that the Government is very open to a discussion about creating new legislation specifically for revenge porn offences, whilst Julian Huppert MP called for “criminal sanction [to be] available when people share indecent images in the knowledge that consent would not have been given”. Today, two Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords has tabled an amendment to the Criminal justice and Courts Bill with the intention of making ‘revenge porn’ a criminal offence.

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If companies cared about our privacy they would be transparent about how they use our data

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Home | 5 Comments

facebook_logo-300x99First GameStation threatened to harvest the souls of its customers’ though its Terms and Conditions (no really!), now it has been revealed that Facebook has been attempting to manipulate its users’ moods after gaining ‘consent’ by burying information about the project in its Terms and Conditions.

Over one week in 2012, Facebook manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed. The point of this experiment was to ascertain whether exposure to emotional posts on Facebook led to users to post similarly emotional content. The project was conducted in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of California. Katherine Sledge Moore of Illinois University claimed that this was nothing unusual “based on what we’ve agreed to by joining Facebook”.

We have long warned about the dangers to users’ privacy that lurk within the lengthy and complex Terms and Conditions of online companies. For example, one study conducted by Which? showed that Facebook’s privacy policy and general terms of use added up to 11,195 words, around the same as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Some are even longer, with Apple’s conditions for iTunes use running to 19,972 words, over 1,000 more than Macbeth. It is therefore not surprising that as a result of these lengthy T’s&C’s, 74% of people were put off reading them.

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The Intelligence Services Commissioner’s Oversight Is Weak and Unaccountable

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

Image3The Intelligence Services Commissioner has released his annual report (pdf) which highlights a high number of times individuals’ privacy was breached due to a series of errors. However, with only 17% of warrants being checked by the Commissioner, serious questions have also been raised about how thorough his investigations can actually be.

It is not unfair to suggest that at present the oversight by the Commissioner is weak and his accountability to Parliament and the public is almost none existent.  A part time Commissioner with only one member of staff cannot reasonably provide adequate oversight of the use of intrusive surveillance powers. As the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) recently pointed out, the Commissioner should be aiming to check at least 50% of warrants if the investigations are to be thorough.

It is clear that the Government must urgently address the fact that the Commissioner clearly does not have enough resources to thoroughly carry out his investigations into the intelligence and security services.

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Big Brother Watch gives evidence to Parliament

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

20140624-131829-47909456.jpgYesterday our acting director gave oral evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee in Parliament on the topic of social media and real time analytics.

The remit of the inquiry was to look into the differences between traditional data storage systems, which were not designed for real-time analysis, and new technologies which can now provide live information and data analysis. The focus of our session was on the privacy implications that may arise from real time analytics and big data generally.

Emma’s fellow panelists were:

- Professor Liesbet van Zoonen, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University
- Professor David Robertson, Head of School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, representing the UK Computing Research Committee
- Dr Mathieu d’Aquin, Research Fellow, The Open University

Big Brother Watch’s written evidence to the Committee is available here.