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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

The RPSCA will PNC you now

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, CRB check, Data Protection, Databases, Information Commissioner, Police, Privacy | 12 Comments

police-2Over the last few years we have highlighted various privacy concerns about a range of government databases, from the National DNA Database to the DVLA database. Our report in 2011 found how nearly 1,000 police officers had been disciplined for unlawful accessing information over a three year period. Violations of the Data Protection Act included running background checks on friends and potential partners and passing on sensitive information to criminal gangs and drug dealers.

Today The Register has revealed that the RSPCA is able to access information from the PNC, despite not having any formal prosecution powers and not being a statutory-organisation. The information handed over is subsequently going unaudited by the Association of Chief Police Officers Criminal Records Office (ACRO) – run by the Association of Chief Police Officers – who also charge for the access. This is despite the PNC User Manual specifically stipulating that auditing is required for organisations that have had access to ‘sensitive information’. If auditing is not being carried out, it is impossible to know whether the RSPCA are using the sensitive data under necessity and proportionately and if they are deleting it when their investigation has concluded.

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SOCA and the blue-chip private investigators

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Police, Privacy, Surveillance | 1 Comment

photographerEarlier in the year we published a report on the growing use of private investigators by local and public authorities, warning that they were being used without RIPA authorisation. Now the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is facing serious calls for it to publish its list of companies and individuals who used corrupt private investigators to obtain personal information.

Attempting to keep this information secret will rightly be seen as an attempt to cover up SOCAs colossal failure to enforce the law. It also reinforces the view that the police are all too willing to use hollow security concerns as a way of hiding their own failings.

Members of Parliament from both the Labour and Conservative parties have raised concerns about the lack of transparency from SOCA, with Stella Creasy MP, a Labour home affairs spokesman, writing to Trevor Pearce, SOCA’s director-general, to ask why a list of 101 of the investigators’ clients it has handed to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee must remain closed.

The Conservative MP David Davis has also called for the list to be made public, saying: “Yet again a police agency is hiding behind excessive secrecy. It is simply not acceptable for SOCA to withhold information of serious public interest three years after the event under the excuse of an ‘on going police investigation’.”

The Independent revealed that banks, pharmaceutical, law, insurance and financial services companies have used private investigators for years to get private data, for example through mobile phone records and bank statements.

The fact that SOCA have repeatedly failed to act on the industrial invasion of people’s privacy by blue chip companies and their investigators is a matter of great public concern and the Home Affairs committee must take every step to ensure the serious questions raised are answered, and answered publicly. It is only right that every one of these crimes is dealt with to the full extent of the law, and those responsible for turning a blind eye are held accountable and properly punished.


Police use of ANPR in Royston ruled illegal

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Home | 13 Comments

Today the Information Commissioner has ruled on a joint complaint from Big Brother Watch, No CCTV and Privacy International, concerning the use of automatic number plate recognition technology in Royston?

In a victory for BBW, our complaint was upheld and The ICO found that Hertfordshire Constabulary failed to carry out “any effective impact assessments” and that the system was “unlawful” as it breached the Data Protection Act, and that it was not justifiable for Hertfordshire Constabulary to log every vehicle passing through the town on its system.

The ICO’s head of enforcement Stephen Eckersley said: “It is difficult to see why a small rural town such as Royston, requires cameras monitoring all traffic in and out of the town, 24 hours a day. The use of ANPR cameras and other forms of surveillance must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to address.”

He said that other UK police forces should be taking note of Royston’s plight. “We hope that this enforcement notice sends a clear message to all police forces, that the use of ANPR cameras needs to be fully justified before they are installed. This includes carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the impact on the privacy of the road-using public.”

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The idea that it is acceptable for the police to record the details of every car entering and leaving a small town was always ridiculous.

“This sends a clear message that the blanket logging of vehicle movements is not going to be within the law and it is now essential that the ICO ensures other police forces are abiding by the law.

“Yet again we find the public placed under surveillance when the police force was unable to justify why the surveillance was necessary or proportionate. Whoever took the decision to press ahead with this ring of steel and to ignore the law so brazenly should be clearing their desk today.”

ICC not fit for purpose?

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Home | 2 Comments

filesThe Interception of Communications Commissioner (ICC) 2012 Annual Report has raised serious questions about whether the commissioner’s office is actually fit for purpose. The report has failed to make any mention of Tempora and PRISM whilst at the same time seriously lacks the impression that the ICC has been enforcing serious oversight of the way security agencies acquire and use communications data.

The report has highlighted that the number of requests that security agencies made about texts, emails and other communications data increased by 15% Ito more than 570,000. The report also makes the admission that information that had been released had led to six members of the public being wrongly detained or accused of committing a crime. The ICC and Parliament need to seriously ask themselves how one commissioner with a handful of staff can meaningfully scrutinise 570,000 surveillance requests.

Throughout 2012 the security agencies were desperate to push through new legislation that would allow them to access communications data from the internet, whilst at the same time Tempora and PRISM were giving them all the data that they have wanted.

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Intelligence and Securtity Committee reports on PRISM

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Databases, International, Internet freedom, Mastering the Internet, PRISM | 4 Comments

commons dayThe ISC has today made a statement on it’s investigation into PRISM, following the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

While it appears the investigation was limited to PRISM, as opposed to Tempora or any of the other programmes we now know to be operational, it reaffirms that the statutory basis for PRISM at least is the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.

Of particular significance is paragraph six:

“Although we have concluded that GCHQ has not circumvented or attempted to circumvent UK law, it is proper to consider further whether the current statutory framework governing access to private communications remains adequate.”

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “If the law is not fit for purpose, the question of not breaking it is largely irrelevant. These laws were written when the internet was unknown to the majority of people and was far from the minds of the Parliamentarians who drafted the laws GCHQ is now bound by many years on.

“When the Intelligence and Security Committee is raising concerns that the current legal framework is adequate, alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear that all is not well. Parliament must urgently turn its attention to this issue.

“I am deeply concerned that this investigation appears to have focused on only one of several programmes we now know to be operational, particularly the storage of the content of communications as they leave the UK. We are still a long way from getting to the bottom of what has been happening.”

GCHQ revelations must lead to Parliamentary inquiry into RIPA

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Freedom of Expression, International, Internet freedom, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Surveillance, Terrorism Legislation | 4 Comments

phone_exchangeRecent alarming revelations have raised some incredibly important questions about the use of surveillance techniques and Big Brother Watch, alongside seven other foremost campaign croups, have called on MPs to begin an enquiry into exactly how ministers and the security agencies have been interpreting the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), as reported in today’s Guardian.

After CIA officer Edward Snowdon revealed documents which showed that GCHQ has used advanced technology to access hundreds of millions of private telecommunications messages, including phone calls, emails and records of internet usage, questions have been rightly asked about the extent of GCHQ’s operations and their legality. The key programme goes by the name of Operation Tempora and it is argued that the gathering of the messages is completely legal because the traffic has left the UK and therefore becomes “external”. In our letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee, we argue that the advanced pace of technology has exposed the inadequate oversight of the surveillance agencies, while legal definitions written for landline telephones are now being used on fibre-optic internet connections.

First Barclays, now Lloyds: which company will go data mining next?

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Data Protection, Privacy | 3 Comments

keyboardYesterday’s Sunday Telegraph reported that Lloyds Banking Group has followed in Barclays’ footsteps by announcing that it could use trillions of data entries from millions of customers’ accounts in order to detect if staff had wrongly sold insurance. Lloyds has justified the move, stating that it would be of “benefit to the customer”, but could this move be purely in the best interests of the bank?

Over the last few months we have seen an increase in reports of companies and banks mining customers’ data for commercial purposes: first it was Barclays and now it seems that Lloyds Banking Group are at it too. Barclays customers were rightly concerned when it was reported last month that the bank had announced that it was planning to sell customers’’ spending data to other businesses. Now it seems that Lloyds Banking Group is also considering using customers’ information for a different purpose: to check whether bank staff wrongly sold insurance.

Lloyds has said that it is prepared to sift through trillions of data entries in millions of accounts in order to identify customers, for example by seeing which customers had been sold breakdown cover but never appear to spend any money on petrol. Lloyds has said that this would be of “benefit to the customer”, but could this actually be a plan to get the Financial Conduct Authority, who has taken a tough line on poor value insurance policies, off its back?

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Scaling back stop and search

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Civil Liberties, Police | 3 Comments

Police-1024x681We have long warned against the risk of police powers being used far beyond how Parliament intended, and in situations where there is no real cause for suspicion. Stop and search powers have been one of the starkest example of how things can get out of control.

The use of the powers have always been controversial, especially amongst ethnic minority communities, however there was public outrage after it came to light that between 2007-2009 450,000 people were stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act; none were convicted or terrorism-related charges.

As the Home Secretary told Parliament today:

“But as important as stop and search undoubtedly is, we have to be frank about widespread public concern regarding its use. Official statistics show that there are more than one million stop and search incidents recorded every year. But on average only about nine per cent of those incidents result in an arrest, and that figure prompts me to question whether stop and search is always used appropriately.”

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New research: Global attitudes to privacy online

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Data Protection, Google, Information Commissioner, International, Internet freedom, Online privacy, Privacy, Research and reports, Social Networking | 14 Comments

serversOur latest research looks at consumer attitudes towards online privacy, with the findings confounding presumptions that consumers – young or old – do not care about their privacy.

Undertaken by ComRes, it involved 10,354 interviews across nine countries (UK, Germany, France, Spain, India, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Australia) and the key findings were:

  • Three quarters (79%) globally say they are concerned about their privacy online.
  • Two-fifths (41%) of consumers surveyed globally say that consumers are being harmed by big companies gathering large amounts of personal data for internal use.
  • Two out of three (65%) of consumers surveyed believe that national regulators should do more to force Google to comply with existing regulations concerning online privacy and the protection of personal data.

Online privacy is a global issue of real importance to people and the overwhelming message is that citizens do not feel their authorities are doing enough to the desire of large companies to collect vast amounts of data on them. You can read the full research below.

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Mastering the Internet and GCHQ

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Mastering the Internet, Surveillance, Technology, United States | 8 Comments


The Guardian has just reported new claims about GCHQ’s internet surveillance operations.

The article claims:

“One key innovation has been GCHQ’s ability to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analysed. That operation, codenamed Tempora, has been running for some 18 months.

GCHQ and the NSA are consequently able to access and process vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people, as well as targeted suspects.

This includes recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook and the history of any internet user’s access to websites – all of which is deemed legal, even though the warrant system was supposed to limit interception to a specified range of targets.”

Of course, GCHQ’s job is to spy on people, to listen to phone calls and protect us. However, as was discussed in Parliament last week, this operates under a strict regime and any interception is subject to a ministerial warrant. As the Foreign Secretary said:

“To intercept the content of any individual’s communications in the UK requires a warrant signed personally by me, the Home Secretary, or by another Secretary of State.

This is no casual process. Every decision is based on extensive legal and policy advice. Warrants are legally required to be necessary, proportionate and carefully targeted, and we judge them on that basis.”

If then, as the Guardian story claims, that large volumes of data – including content – are being scraped from fibre optic cables then this would have to be authorised by a Secretary of State’s warrant for every individual affected.

As this report notes, interception can be defined under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as “an interception as carried out in the course of its transmission when (i) it is stored so that the recipient can access and collect it later31 and (ii) when the contents of the transmission are stored by the interceptor so as to make them available after the transmission (‘subsequently’).”

However, the Guardian has summarised potential legal loopholes that may significantly handicap the existing safeguards. The main point is that if a communication is “external” to the UK it can be collected under a RIPA certificate, rather than requiring an individual warrant. If two British people were to have a Facebook chat, for example, that chat is routed via Facebook outside the UK. The argument would then seem to be that GCHQ is intercepting it as it enters and leaves the UK, and as such is an “external” communication. We would take major issue with this legal interpretation, as whichever way you look at it the content of a message between two UK citizens is being intercepted without an explicit warrant from a Secretary of State. This is applying a law for landline telephones to the internet in a way that deliberately expands the amount of data that can be collected far beyond what was considered by Parliament. 

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “This appears to be dangerously close to, if not exactly, the centralised database of all our internet communications, including some content, that successive Governments have ruled out and Parliament has never legislated for.

“Britain has a clear legal process in place to govern the interception of the content of communications and blanket interception is not a part of that system. If GCHQ have been intercepting huge numbers of innocent people’s communications as part of a massive sweeping exercise then I struggle to see how that squares with a process that requires a warrant for each individual intercept. This question must be urgently be addressed in Parliament.

“The fact GCHQ staff have been discussing how light the UK’s oversight regime is compared to the US highlights why we need a wholesale review of surveillance law, including the fact that there is absolutely no judicial process within the current system and the people making these decisions are able to hide in the shadows rather than face public scrutiny.”