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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


Who cares about medical privacy

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Privacy | Leave a comment

No2id It is a commonplace among proponents of a "no secrets, nowhere to hide" society that young people, brought up in the internet age are happy to live in public on Facebook and mobile phone, and don't value their privacy. The hint is that doing so is somehow for fuddy-duddies.

But a study just published by the Royal Academy of Engineering suggests that so called Digital Natives actually have a more subtle understanding of what privacy means than those pooh-poohing it.

‘Privacy and Prejudice’ (full report available here)  specifically studied the views of teenagers of the computerization and centralization of medical records – Electronic Patient Records (EPR).  It is very clear:

Growing up in an era of the Big Brother television series and the expansion of social networking sites such as Facebook does not mean that young people do not care about privacy or what happens to their personal information. Privacy is indeed extremely important to young people. [...]

Young people have significant concerns regarding EPRs. These arise due to the perceived inherent weaknesses of an EPR system, including both the robustness (or not) of the technology and the potential errors that will be made by the users. Young people noticed that this could lead to incorrect data within a patient’s record, data loss (massive or individual) or the data reaching the ‘wrong hands’. The consequences were deemed to be very serious and include the improper treatment of patients, fundamental breaches in privacy, the misuse and inappropriate exploitation of the data, prejudice and discrimination.

They distinguish naturally between such systems, where the information included and the uses it is put to are not chosen by the subject but fundamentally affecting his or her life, and the social network, seen as a matter of self-projection and presentation. It’s the nature of the relationship that is important, who is in charge.

On this evidence teenagers also have a much clearer understanding of the meaning of privacy than government policy makers, who have just decided that the NHS Summary Care Records system can continue to be built by the sort of inertia selling that would be illegal for a commercial organisation. In future they will put an opt-out form in the envelope. Big deal. You will still be assumed irrevocably to have consented, regardless of your understanding of what you are being asked, if you fail to use it – on behalf of yourself and your children.

There are no plans to write to under-18s individually. Adults know better what’s good for them, apparently.

By Guy Herbert, NO2ID

“Scraping” – or, Beware of What You Put on the Web (part two)

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | 3 Comments

Scrap Regular visitors to this blog will have seen Dominique Lazanski's warning earlier this week about the risks of businesses and employers "scraping" personal information you have uploaded to the internet.

With this in mind, Big Brother Watch has been alerted to the case of the 'scraping' of PatientLikeMe.com – a discussion forum for people with emotional disorders, "ranging from bipolar disease to a desire to cut themselves". In the early hours of the morning on 7th May, website administrators observed "suspicious" activity on website, with copies of each of the messages on the website being copied in their entirety by a media-research firm representing the pharmaceutical industry.

Information about the opinions of the website's users where then forwarded to drug companies. While many users of the website posted their messages under pseudonyms, one user complained that information contained on his profile revealed his correct e-mail and blog addresses – something which could allow drug companies to identify him directly.

Despite the sensitive nature of its content – and their condemnation of companies who engage in "scraping" -  PatientsLikeMe.com, the website from which the data as to views of patients was obtained, freely admits to selling anonymized information about the profile of its users to commercial clients for market research purposes.

Scraping, the Wall Street Journal confirms, is big business:

"The emerging business of web scraping provides some of the raw material for a rapidly expanding data economy. Marketers spent $7.8 billion on online and offline data in 2009, according to the New York management consulting firm Winterberry Group LLC. Spending on data from online sources is set to more than double, to $840 million in 2012 from $410 million in 2009.

"Scraping services range from dirt cheap to custom-built. Some outfits, such as 80Legs.com in Texas, will scrape a million Web pages for $101. One Utah company, screen-scraper.com, offers do-it-yourself scraping software for free. The top listening services can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor and analyze Web discussions.

"Nielsen BuzzMetrics, quickly became a leader in the field of social-media monitoring. It collects data from 130 million blogs, 8,000 message boards, Twitter and social networks. It sells services such as "ThreatTracker," which alerts a company if its brand is being discussed in a negative light"

In light of this case, Dominique's warning has become all the more prescient:

"The best advice for all of this is to be careful of what you put online. Only individuals are best placed to take control of what they share and when they share it. And you never know who is watching"

By Daniel Hamilton

An end to ‘sexting’

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

Fittytexting News has reached Big Brother Watch that the US Patent and Trademark Office has approved a patent submitted on behalf of Apple to end the practice of "sexting".

With the innocuous working title of the 'Text-based communication control for personal communication device', Apple's new application is set to "prevent users from sending or receiving “objectionable” text messages". The technology, which will be hosted on Apple's text message servers will effectively block any text messages containing sexual language or explitives from being delivered.

No mention has yet been made of whether the text messages which do not 'pass muster' will be stored by the company with a note as to their original sender.

Click here to read the full story at TechCrunch.

Hat-tip: GF

By Daniel Hamilton

Facebook’s Privacy Problem

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | 8 Comments

Akgun As someone studying Marketing, Advertising & PR at university with a special interest in Social Media I am certainly no stranger to the beast that is Facebook. Despite the heavy criticism it has received from its users I have always defended it, having the view that what you put on the internet, especially on a social website, is your responsibility.

For example when people complained that adverts on Facebook 'knew too much' I took the view (a biased marketer's one admittedly) that data intelligent adverts were a good thing. Why wouldn't you want specifically targeted adverts as oppose to the usual dating, money making and medical adverts people are often inundated with?

Increasingly though I have taken a more and more negative view to the way Facebook deals with its users and data privacy. When the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg responded to data privacy concerns by stating that "the age of privacy is over" I was angered. It is one thing to inform users that they are responsible for the information they put on the internet, but another to completely disregard the basic human right to privacy that everybody deserves.

Read more

A review of the current playing field for civil liberties

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Admin, Body Scanners, CCTV, Control Orders, Databases, DNA database, Europe, ID cards, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | 4 Comments

I have written an extended piece for the website Critical Reaction reviewing the various outstanding civil liberties issues under the Coalition. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here.

By Alex Deane

Microchip gives cat cancer… and how are you feeling, Granny?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy | 2 Comments

I wrote back in May about dementia sufferers into whom microchips had been inserted, to keep track of them – "for their own good".

I now note that US Pharma giant Merck is being sued as a chip they inserted into a pet cat seems to have given it cancer.

Just saying.

By Alex Deane

Schneier: invasions of privacy a “byproduction of the IT society”

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | Leave a comment

The annual RSA conference of security professionals took place in London yesterday. Among the speakers is Bruce Schneier, the Chief Security Technology Officer at BT.

Addressing his remarks to the conference, Schneier outlined his belief that "invasions of privacy" have become an inevitable "byproduct of the IT society" and that individuals "are leaving digital footprints in our everyday lives".  Indeed, the "digital footprints" of BT's own customers have in the past been interpreted by the so-called Phorm software which allowed online advertisers to target their messages to individual internet users on the basis of their past surfing habits. 

The problem of individuals accumulating unfortunate digital footprints has long been a matter of concern for Big Brother Watch. Such is the scale of the problem, serious questions have been raised as to whether young people may have to change their names later in life in order that they avoid unfortunate photographs and personal information surfacing later in life.

Ignoring BT's own record, Schneier went on to single Facebook out for particular crticism, alleging that the website is sacrificing personal privacy in order to further its commercial position:

"Less privacy makes a better market for social networks. Facebook is the worst offender – not because it's evil but because its market is selling user data to its commercial partners. There's no [commercial] market for a Facebook privacy add-on but if Facebook added extra privacy controls people would want it.  Don't fool yourself that use are the user of social networks – you are the product".

When it comes to Facebook, Big Brother watch has a simple piece of advice: do not upload anything to the internet you would not wish to see in the public domain. The prescience of such a piece of advice was perfectly illustrated earlier this week following the news that personal 'phone numbers of users of the Facebook iPhone application were uploaded to the internet without their consent.

By Daniel Hamilton

Texas school children tracked by microchips

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Privacy | Leave a comment

ImagesCA3YPAYM Fresh from reports in the UK that several East Midlands schools have installed 4D facial recognition scanners in order to sign their pupils in and out of lessons, two school districts in Texas have gone one step further and integrated radio frequency identification devices into their pupils’ badges.

The devices, which are only slightly thicker than an ordinary plastic identity card have already been issued to 13,500 of the 36,000 pupils living in the Spring School District based around Santa Fe. Described as "fantastic" by education administators, the devices allow teachers to remotely track the movements of their pupils as they wander around the school campus. 

Dotty Griffin of the American Civil Liberties Union, who have unsuccessfully fought to have the devices removed from schools in California, has been leading the charge against the microchips.  Her arguments against the use of this type of technology in schools are identical to those levelled against 4D facial recognition scanners:

"There's real questions about the security risks involved with these gadgets. Readers can skim information. To the best of my knowledge, these things are not foolproof. We constantly see cases where people are skimming, hacking and stealing identities from sophisticated systems”.

Click here to read the full story.

Big Brother Watch has yet to receive reports of such devices being installed in British schools but would greatly appreciate being notified if this technology makes its way over the pond…

By Daniel Hamilton

A glance across the pond: the Republicans and civil liberties

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

Usflag Nobody with interest in civil liberties issues could judge the successive administrations over the past decade to have done anything other than curtail freedoms and expand the power of the state to intrude on the personal lives of American citizens.

Indeed, the bipartisan Patriot Act which gave government official unfettered access to individuals’ library records, introduced wire tapping as a standard feature of US policing and dramatically expanded the scope of the surveillance society, passed the Senate by a 99 vote to 1 margin. Russ Feingold, the sole Senator to cast a vote against the act is almost certain to be defeated in his quest for a fourth term if present polls are to be believed.

While the incumbent Democratic Party is likely retain control of the Senate in the November 2nd election, polling suggests it is increasingly likely that the Republicans will make significant gains in the House of Representatives.

Outlining its policies for the upcoming election, the Republicans have published a document entitled a ‘Pledge to America’ outlining their proposed approach to governance. From a civil liberties perspective, it’s heavier on platitudes than it is on policies.

The document begins encouragingly, declaring that “government’s powers are derived from the consent of the governed “and “that each of us is endowed by their Creator with the unalienable rights to life and liberty”.

This, however, is as far as the discussion of issues of personal – rather than financial – freedom go.  There's no mention of rolling back the "sneak and peek" laws (which arguably violate the US Constitution), no loosening of the party's opposition to ensuring 'Miranda rights' for all criminal suspects are respected and no end to racial profiling laws such as those currently operated in Arizona.

It is striking, considering the impact the Tea Party movement's message of personal financial freedom has had on the party to note how minimal a cache the party places on such issues at present.

If, as many predict, the Republicans do take control of the House of Representatives they might be expected to cut the size of the state –but it’s doubtful they’ll cut the power of the state.

Read the ‘Pledge to America’ here.

By Daniel Hamilton

NHS “big brother” database scaled back

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Privacy | 5 Comments

Stethescope Big Brother Watch has been a consistent opponent of the government's attempts to introduce what a major national newspaper has termed a "big brother database" storing the medical records of every patient in the United Kingdom. Aside from being hugely costly to implement, such a system would be both intrusive and open to abuse at the hands of unscrupulous individuals.

As a BBW research paper published in April showed, private patient records are already widely accessible by more than 100,000 non-medical personnel, often without appropriate background checks. 

The announcement today that the system is going to be scaled back to include "only patients' most basic information" such as allergies and possible adverse reactions to drugs should therefore be welcomed – but only partially.

While the Department of Health have confirmed that those being added to the database in the coming months will receive an 'opt out' form exempting them from the scheme, the records of more than two million people have already been uploaded – in many cases without a full explanation having been offered to them as how to opt-out of the service.

The Department for Health and National Health Service bodies must do all they can to right this wrong. Members of the public have an absolute right to confidentiality when it comes to their personal medical records.

By Daniel Hamilton