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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


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

Damian Green’s speech at Big Brother Watch event, Conservative Party Conference 2010

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Control Orders, Databases, DNA database, Events, Privacy | 5 Comments

Green BBW event Big Brother Watch was proud to host Damian Green's speech on the fringe at the Conservative Party's Conference in Birmingham this week. Here's the text.

"British freedoms for British People"

Thank you for that introduction. It painted a bleak picture of the authoritarian state built up under thirteen years of Labour rule.

What struck me after my own arrest, and my successful campaign to have my DNA taken off the database after I was cleared, was the anger in the letters that came in from those in a similar position. Former army officers, magistrates, grandmothers in small towns who had never dreamed of offending, were all united in their distrust of the police and the authorities more generally. These are the people we have always thought of as the backbone of respectable society. Alienating them from the law enforcement authorities would be a disaster.  This is one of the quiet ways that New Labour lost Middle Britain.

And even Labour’s new leader seems to agree. Ed Miliband claimed in his Conference speech last week that he wants to ‘reclaim’ liberty for the Labour Party. He has admitted that:

“I've said throughout this campaign that I believe New Labour was at times too casual about the liberty of individuals.[..] We made mistakes over ID cards and 42-day detention and how we handled stop and search powers. ”

Words are cheap. Will we see action from Ed Miliband?

Read more

4D facial recognition systems in Northamptonshire schools

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Online privacy, Privacy | 4 Comments

Facereg At Big Brother Watch we were concerned to learn this week of a Northamptonshire school's decision to introduce a new facial-recognition system to track pupils' movements.

According to reports in the London Metro:

"About 200 sixth formers are having their faces scanned when they ‘clock in and out’ at Sir Christopher Hatton School, in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, along with pupils in schools in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.  The system can deliver messages to pupils when they sign in, using a four-digit pin, and notes whether they’re late"

Speaking to the Metro Kelli Foster, the school's Head of Sixth Form is right to describe the technology as "incredible"; for indeed it is incredible that schools should feel the need to turn to hold information as to the distance between the eyes and noses of their pupils in order to distinguish between them.  Furthermore, Ms Foster explains that prior to the installation of the technology "each pupil had to sign in and out of the reception by filling in a form – but now it takes under ten seconds".  Without wishing to take an antidelivian attitude to new technology, we at BBW have seen few sign-in forms which take as long as ten seconds to fill in…

With a costly £9,000 price tag (equivalent to £45 per pupil to install), such systems have limited benefits yet are wide open to abuse – from the risk of data theft to the misuse of images by unscrupulous individuals.

Rather than spend money on gimmicks like this, teachers and schools should focus on educating their pupils – and getting to know who they are.

By Daniel Hamilton

Facebook: have they got your number?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy | 5 Comments

Facebook The Guardian carries a concerning story regarding the latest version of Facebook’s popular iPhone application.

As a result of the application’s new “contact sync” feature, those using the service face having both their personal phone number and those of their contacts uploaded to the internet.  When uploaded, the phone numbers will be automatically cross-checked with those of other members before allocating them to your online ‘phonebook.

Charles Arthur makes the following observation:

The implications are huge, and extremely worrying. All it takes is for someone's Facebook account to be hacked (perhaps via their phone being stolen) and lots of personal details are revealed. Or, as [in one case], you get your phonebook record of "Steve Car" (a garage mechanic) somehow linked to someone called "Steve Carlton" – who you don’t know

Facebook have responded to early criticism of the "contact sync" feature and have now introduced a warning to all those opting to use the feature that their details will be uploaded "subject to Faceook's privacy policy". 

The only way, however, to ensure your telephone number is not shared in this way appears to remove this information from your Facebook profile.

Click here for the full story.

By Daniel Hamilton

The Child Support Agency + surveillance = credit card debt

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Databases, Legal Action, Privacy | 2 Comments

Csalogo With levels of both government and personal debt at dangerous levels, one would have thought that the Child Support Agency – a body which prides itself on bringing “financial stability” to the homes of children whose parents live apart – would do all it could to encourage parents to behave in a fiscally responsible manner.

This emphasis on fiscal responsibility does not, however, extend as the sleepy south-coast town of Poole.

Following a reassessment of the level of child support payments he must make, 49 year old father Stephen Bailey has been ordered to make an additional contribution of £300 towards his daughter’s upkeep.

While willing to make the additional payment at the earliest opportunity, Bailey lacked the sufficient funds in his current account to do so.

No problem”, a representative of the CSA informed him, “you have £617 left on your credit card.  Pay up!".

Bailey later discovered that the CSA has an established policy of using credit referencing agencies in order to delve into the financial matters of absent parents.

Nobody would argue that steps must be taken to ensure delinquent parents must pay their fair share for their children’s upbringing. What is, however, profoundly wrong is for the CSA to abuse their privileged access to personal financial data in order to bully individuals into racking up irresponsible credit card debts.

The CSA, of course, has form in this area having been criticised by a thirteen year old girl late last year for bankrupting her far-from-absent father.  Read Mr Bailey’s full story on the Bournemouth Daily Echo website.

By Daniel Hamilton

Paid-to-snoop service launches

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Privacy | 12 Comments

Interneteyes As previously discussed on this blog, the new paid-to-snoop service which will allow members of he public to monitor CCTV cameras from their own home and alert business owners to shoplifting and anti-social behaviour has now been launched. Upon alerting business owners to a crime taking place, a text message will be sent to the business owner alerting the of the alleged crime.

With a quarterly membership fee of £12.99, members of the 'Internet Eyes' scheme will be offered to chance to accumulate points in order to obtain cash prizes and awards.  Users will receive three points for alerting businesses “to an act they believe may be theft or represent other unlawful or anti-social behaviour” and two for “acting in good faith” in flagging up a supposed ‘incident’ even when “no theft or other unlawful or anti-social behaviour occurred”.

Regardless of whether or not the user identifies any crimes taking place, Internet Eyes will award cash payments to the most prodigious of users.   Those using the website for an average of an hour a day will receive a payment of 50 pence per month rising to £1.50 for those online for sixty hours or more.

While Big Brother Watch does not oppose the use of CCTV surveillance in sensitive areas such as airports and ferry terminals, it’s astonishing to think that innocent people out doing their shopping could soon be spied on by an army of busy bodies with an internet connection. 

Big Brother Watch has requested a full list of those businesses currently operating the scheme.

By Daniel Hamilton

Operation Crackdown

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy | 14 Comments

On Saturday the Daily Mail ran details of a bizarre operation being run by Sussex Police called 'Operation Crackdown'.

Operation_crackdown_logo The basic premise of OC is that local people are encouraged to submit reports of 'anti-social driving' online.

Which might seem fair enough, except that all the numberplates are held on a central database, cross-referenced with the ANPR database and after two reports the owner of the vehicle starts getting threatening letters.

To quote the promotional leaflet produced in conjunction with the scheme:

Under the section headed, If you See Someone Driving Antisocially, it says; 'Pull over safely at the side of the road, or ask a passenger to write down details.

'Record the make, model, colour and number plate of the vehicle.

'To help pin-point where you saw the incident..use house numbers, road names or shop names. Write down what you saw as soon as you can, so it's fresh in your mind.

It goes on: 'All reports remain live for a period of two months and a vehicle is automatically 'flagged up' if it is reported more than once.

I really don't need to spell it out, but can anyone see how this ludicrous scheme might be abused by nosy neighbours, grudge-bearing colleagues and general miscreants?

Take a look at the website and see the full horror for yourself.

This is the latest step towards recruiting the citizenry into the state spying machine.

By Dylan Sharpe

What to do with an incompetent Department? Give them more power! At least, that’s what HMRC thinks…

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy | 14 Comments

HMRC Over at City AM, Allister Heath has an extremely troubling column about how the privacy and indeed freedom of all UK taxpayers may be affected by the post-cock-up fallout of the HMRC's latest pathetic tax blunder.

After disastrously miscalculating PAYE tax for millions of people, HMRC is apparently now lobbying for…

a gigantic power grab which could entirely redefine the relationship between the state, employees and their employers.

At present, PAYE income taxes are deducted by employers from their employees’ wages on a monthly basis. Under the most extreme of the proposals, companies would start handing over their entire salaries to the government, in the shape of a “central calculator” run by HMRC. The taxes would then be deducted by HMRC and the remaining amount would be paid by the taxman to employees. Incredibly, HMRC would suddenly become the largest payroll organisation in the world – it, rather than employers, would pay wages.

How do we hate this? Let us count the ways…

  • Set-up costs: massive, with thousands of consultants, developers and others being hired; these IT projects are notoriously expensive, invariably go over budget and end up not working properly at all.
  • Errors: massive numbers of errors would lead to money being paid over by employers but not reaching employees on the due day. The government's track record with large IT projects makes this a near-certainty. Imagine if 1m people suddenly didn’t receive their pay at the end of the month..
  • Ongoing costs: HMRC would have to hire tens of thousands of staff – jobs
    currently undertaken by payroll or HR departments in private firms –
    merely to deal with queries, transferring these jobs from the private sector to the inefficient public sector – not only meaning we now all have to pay the wages of these people hitherto employed in the private sector, but making us all liable for their pensions to boot!
  • More state control: the coalition is talks about decentralisation and localism. Centralising payroll in a government institution is an unbelievably absurd move in the opposite direction.
  • Privacy – what privacy? Will everyone’s salary and taxation level be
    available online, given that all of the data would suddenly be
    in one place? Hackers would have a field day. It only needs to be lost once – and once it's lost, it's gone for good. Just ask the 25 million people whose personal details were on the child benefit database, lost in 2006.

But wait, that's not all! HMRC have an additional proposal: real-time information on pay so that tax more likely to be deducted correctly. As Heath points out,

There could be huge costs to employers, who would have to invest heavily in staff and computer systems.

The real danger, however, is that HMRC is also thinking of forcing firms to hand over extra information to the authorities as part of this shift to real-time data. This is unacceptable for cost and privacy reasons. The Institute of Directors has highlighted some of the issues. Is pay frequency really needed? How can employers be expected to know about all third-party payments, in real time? Does the fact that some pay is for holidays matter for tax purposes?

There is yet one more suggestion – that hours worked should be recorded by the state. This would be another odiously authoritarian development. It is almost as if officials are deliberately seeking to kill off corporate Britain and to impose Soviet-style controls on taxpayers.

All in all – a very bad performance today, from a very bad Department.

By Alex

This plan is also well bashed by Jill Kirby of the CPS, over at Centre Right