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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


Have you disabled Facebook Places yet?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Online privacy, Privacy | 2 Comments

The following is an exchange from my Facebook profile late last night:


For the record, I was at a comedy club yesterday evening and therefore have no idea have Facebook Places came to determine I was at a branch of Costcutter – or indeed that the application was active in the first place. 

If you're an iPhone user and don't want this kind of information being shared on your Facebook profile, do make sure you check your phone's settings to ensure that the GPS tracking function is not active.

If you'd like more information about how to disable the application, please click here to read a blog post Dominique Lazakski has written on the issue.

By Daniel Hamilton

Joint statement on Google and the ICO

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Online privacy, Privacy | 7 Comments

A joint statement condemning the Information Commissioner’s Office as "not fit for purpose" has been issued by Big Brother Director Alex Deane, Simon Davies (Privacy International), Phil Booth (NO2ID), Terri Dowty (Action on Rights for Children) and Jim Killock (Open Rights Group).

Click here to view the statement.

What is the point of the ICO?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Online privacy, Privacy | 3 Comments

Eye97 Over the past few weeks, Big Brother Watch has frequently called into question the effectiveness of the Information Commissioner, even to the point of whether or not it should exist.

In particular, we have been aggrieved by the failure of the regulator to take affirmative action against Google following their harvesting of sensitive personal information from domestic WiFi networks.  Following a House of Commons debate in which MPs from across the political divide called for action to be taken against the firm, the ICO issued a statement saying they would not be taking any "knee jerk" action

Today, the Information Commissioner issued a statement confirming that they would not be launching any action at all against Google for their infringement of data protection laws.

Commenting on this, Big Brother Watch Director Alex Deane said:

"The Information Commissioner’s failure to take action is disgraceful.

“Ruling that Google has broken the law, but then taking no action against it, shows the Commissioner to be a paper tiger. The Commissioner is an apologist for the worst offender in his sphere of responsibility, not a policeman of it.

"If Google can harvest the personal information of thousands of people and get off scot-free, then the ICO plainly has a contempt for privacy."

The ICO have proved are good at enforcing the Freedom of Information laws and appear to see that role as their raison d'etre.  Why not, therefore, leave them with that and give the role of privacy watchdog to a new office which might actually take a more proactive approach than we see at present?

Such a regulator could have full responsibility for policing not just infringements of online privacy such as in the case of Google but also those relating to data protection in the workplace, central government handling of personal information and so on. 

By Daniel Hamilton

My speech to the Libertarian Alliance: Anonymity is not a Crime

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Control Orders, Databases, Events, ID cards, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | Leave a comment

I gave this speech this weekend and thought that readers might be interested. It's a bit long and I look like the left side of my face is slowly being cooked by the lighting, but it's not a bad speech I think.

Topics covered:

* Intercept Modernisation Programme

* Stop and Search

* ID Cards

* Control Orders

* NICE databases

Topic I would have covered if I had time, and will be addressing again very soon indeed: European Arrest Warrant

By Alex Deane

Why Theresa May should stand firm tomorrow

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Body Scanners, CCTV, Control Orders, Privacy | 4 Comments

An interesting reaction both here and on Facebook to my post about tomorrow's speech by Theresa May. Tomorrow – a day, and as the West Wing knew too well, a word that stands for the future. It's an argument I've had before, but I thought that I would take a moment to set out my thinking here.

The Yemeni bomb plot could not have come at a worse time. Just as the Government – already showing deeply worrying signs of bureaucratic capture and authoritarian reactions to headlines – comes to decide on the next steps to be taken in counter-terrorism, a plot like this is discovered.

In reaction to it, serious commentators like Matthew D'Ancona effectively advocate the abandonment of the Government's commitment to a freedom agenda, saying – and I quote – that "this campaign for civil liberties is a gift for Al Qaeda." They would have us resume business as usual, as things were in the Blair/Brown years.

But to do so would be to lose all sense of proportion. It seems almost forgotten by the scareocrats that the attack was actually foiled, that it was relatively uncommon, that nobody was injured; moreover, much more importantly, it is entirely overlooked by the authoritarian lobby that our forebears withstood appalling actual harm without caving into such pressures. Members of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet were pulled from the rubble of the Grand Hotel, in an attack in which five people died, but her Brighton conference went on and liberties were not curtailed. Likewise, in the course of the "Troubles", the IRA killed thousands. And yet, faced in the present-day by this small band of ineffectual thugs, D'Ancona and co would have our Home Secretary abandon the path of freedom upon which she and her party pledged to embark when offering themselves as candidates at the ballot box a mere few months ago.

Let's be plain about what's at stake. Detention without trial for a month. Random stop and search, under which the police can demand your papers, bullying the law-abiding and demonstrating who's in charge, interfering with your basic freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of speech. Control orders, anathema to any democratic society, under which the freedom of the individual can be curtailed – in principle, in perpetuity – without him knowing the details or even nature of the charge against him. When you cannot know the nature of the accusation or the name of your accuser, it is of course impossible to rebut the allegation concerned. Certainly, it doesn't affect you at present – after all, first they came for the 45 people who have been subject to such orders to date. But who's next? And when the charge never has to be justified to any objective standard, don't be fooled – it could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. Let us not hope that, then, others would not turn away from you as D'Ancona and co turn away from those whose liberty is thus curtailed now. Finally of course, the ridiculous end of privacy and freedom and dignity that is the circus at modern airports. All these things matter enormously. May must not shirk on any of them.

Values held only in good times are without worth. Indeed, they can be positively harmful, providing a false sense of freedom in a society in fact all too willing to resort to knee-jerk curtailment of rights at the first sign of trouble. As our American cousins, at the polls toda,y remind us, "Freedom is not Free." It will cost more to defend, it will be difficult, yes, it will involve more risk – but our values are worth defending and freedom is a cause worth fighting for. It is the lot of democracies to fight with one hand tied behind our backs, to put aside some tools even though they might help – it is a very slippery slope when you start abrogating freedoms, and the retention of them – even when the going gets tough – is what makes us different from the terrorists we face.

Stick to your guns, Ms May.

By Alex Deane

Training and data security

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Privacy | 1 Comment

Pcc The Public Service Journal carries news today of Portsmouth City Council's failure to ensure adequite data security for information it holds about local residents.  In this particular case, it appears that confidential information regarding the mental health of an individual that ought to have been redacted was released to another member of the public in error.

According to the Information Commissioner's office – which has this week effectively cleared Google for their harvesting of confidential data from thousands of private home-owners – the "breach of the Data Protection Act was entirely avoidable, and would not have happened if the individuals dealing with the request had been given proper training and the necessary levels of support".

Details of the case aside, ICO raises an interesting point; chiefly, that awareness among employees of both public and private sector organisations of the importance of handling personal data sensitively is woefully low.  In light of this case and that of Healthcare Locums, the ICO must take a more proactive role in helping to raise awareness of the importance of professional training to avoid harmful mishaps such as this occuring.

By Daniel Hamilton

Information Commissioner fails to act against Google

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Legal Action, Online privacy, Privacy | 10 Comments

Ico The Information Commissioner's office has just issued a statement confirming they will not be taking (what they term as) "knee jerk" action against Google for their harvesting of the personal data of thousands of people.

According to the Press Association, the ICO is "waiting for the result of overseas inquiries before deciding whether to consider using its enforcement powers" and could yet issue a "stop notice" forbidding Google from collecting such data in the future.  

This lack of action from the ICO follows the regrettable decision of the Metropolitan Police last week not to pursue a criminal case against Google.

Their failure to take decisive is nothing short of a disgrace. If they're going to wait until results from abroad, then what is the point of having an ICO of our own?  The Commissioner has been an apologist for the worst offender in his sphere of responsibility, not a policeman of it.

What kind of a message does it send out about the effectiveness of the ICO and their commitment to personal privacy when a company like Google is able to harvest the personal information of thousands of people and get off scot-free?

By Daniel Hamilton

Who’s listening?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Privacy | 1 Comment

Cctv1 At Big Brother Watch, we are well used to hearing of new forms of surveillance and their ability to intude into the lives of British citizens.  To date, however, we had not identified any examples of the private conversations of individuals walking along a street being monitored and analysed. 

That all changed this week with the announcement by Cambridge firm Audio Analytic that they have developed a new form of audio scanner attached to CCTV cameras which is able to "analyse the pitch, tone and intonation of noises and work out if they pose a threat". 

While Audio Analytic claim the hardware will only flag-up audible examples of aggression, it must surely follow that for such technology to be effective it must monitor all conversations in its vicinity?

In future, watch what you say – you never know who might be listening…

By Daniel Hamilton

A little piece of you will forever be in Rotterdam

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Databases, Privacy | 7 Comments

Rotterdam Big Brother Watch was recently alerted to the case of an East Midlands school which had deployed automatic facial recognition software as a means by which to sign their pupils in and out of school.

Rotterdam City Council, it appears, have gone one step further in announcing the roll-out of facial recognition scanners on their public transport network as a means by which to prevent those with travels bans from boarding trams.

According to DutchNews.nl:

"The scanners will record the biometric features of passengers as they enter the tram. If a passenger with a public transport ban is spotted, an alarm will sound in the driver's cabin and the passenger will be removed.. At the moment, drivers are issued with photos of banned passengers and have to recognise them from these"

So there, you are warned: if you board the tram while in Amsterdam, the Dutch authorities will forever hold both your biometric data and details as to where you boarded and disembarked the tube.

Ah well, you needn't worry; at least the scheme isn't being introduced in Amsterdam, so they'll never find out about that trip you're planning to De Wallen

By Daniel Hamilton

MPs slam Google in landmark parliamentary debate in internet privacy

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Online privacy, Privacy | 9 Comments

Google In a landmark parliamentary debate on internet privacy this afternoon, Members of Parliament launched a stinging attack on Google for its harvesting of sensitive personal information by its Street View vehicles.

Today’s debate was one of crucial importance.

Given the number of contributions this afternoon from Members of Parliament across the political divide, Google must now sit up and take notice of the numerous concerns amongst parliamentarians in relation to the company’s reckless approach to personal privacy. 

Ed Vaizey MP, the minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with responsibility for internet issues, indicated that he would be speaking to Google as a matter of urgency to convey the concerns of Members.  A verbal ticking-off from Minister is, however, nothing more than a slap on the wrist – and this simply doesn't go far enough when it comes to disciplining the company for one of the most significant invasions of personal privacy in British history.

It is a great shame that the Metropolitan Police have let Google off the hook when it comes to launching a criminal investigation into the company's conduct. The puts the ball very much back into the Information Commissioner’s court. Thus far the Commissioner has been an apologist for the worst offenders in his sphere of responsibility, not a policeman of them.  Following on from today's debate, let's hope that he now shows some teeth and punishes Google for their wrongdoing

Big Brother Watch would like to extend it sincere thanks to the debate's initiator Robert Halfon MP.

The full list of MPs who attended is as follows: Ed Vaizey MP (Minister for the Internet), Mike Weir MP (in the Chair), Michael Ellis MP, Mike Weatherley MP, Damian Collins MP, Julian Huppert MP, Rt Hon David Davis MP, Ian Lucas MP, Robert Goodwill MP, Robin Walker MP, Mark Lancaster MP, Chris D. Kelly MP, Damian Hinds MP, Don Foster MP, Bob Stewart MP, Nigel Dodds MP, Sir Alan Beith MP, Nadine Dorries MP, Eric Joyce MP, Jane Ellison MP, Steve Baker MP and Dominic Raab MP.

By Daniel Hamilton