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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


Won’t someone think of the students…?

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Internet freedom, Online privacy, Privacy, Surveillance | 4 Comments

Image3For privacy campaigners, the issue of big data has been a cause for some time, with a growing trend of governments, businesses and other institutions gathering increasing amounts of data which is then analysed, often without consent from individuals.

It seems that universities are increasingly thinking about using the vast amount of data collected to analyse how facilities are used and identify students who may fail or drop out of their course. By doing this, universities are acting like they don’t require permission to use the data in this way and are seriously undermining student trust.

One university is considering performing a full analysis of emails and other text interactions between staff and students for performance management purposes. The potential for mission creep once the scheme is in place is huge. What happens when a protest takes place, or any other actions that the university may frown upon, does that mean the university would then analyse emails to see who had taken part?

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Government announces plans to regulate private investigators

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Leveson, Privacy, Surveillance | 3 Comments

iStock_000017522162SmallThe Home Secretary yesterday confirmed plans to regulate private investigators, including a new penalty for working as an unlicensed private investigator or supplying unlicensed investigators of a fine of up to £5,000 and up to six months in prison.

In our report earlier this year, we warned that private investigators were potentially being used to circumvent surveillance law by public authorities, and also identified their work as being a major threat to privacy where the information could be used in court if it had been obtained by improper means. We are pleased the Home Office has agreed with our recommendation to regulate private investigators.

We also highlighted in our evidence to the Leveson inquiry how journalists were not the only people using private investigators and that the wider issue was essential to address. As recent revelations about SOCA show, this is a very real problem and potentially involves a much greater scale of illegal activity than seen in the media.

While the Data Protection Act does offer legal protections, at present you cannot be sent to prison for breaching Section 55. We believe that this change will improve privacy protections, particularly as it broadens out the range of activities that might have been difficult to prosecute under the DPA. It is also important that those hiring a PI will be held liable if they are not properly licensed.

There is much more work to be done to ensure that people’s privacy and confidential information is protected from untoward surveillance and intrusion, including more rigorous enforcement of the Data Protection Act and custodial sentences. Regulating private investigators is an important part of this process.

Going forward, we hope that the consideration of whether evidence is admitted in court takes into account whether the regulatory framework has been complied with, particularly where those involved are aware that they are acting without a license.


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.


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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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 | 18 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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The Government says NO to blanket pub snooping

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in CCTV, Councils, Privacy, Surveillance | 1 Comment


Having recently posted about local councils reducing the number of CCTV cameras in their local area it seems that the Government has taken the additional step to ensure that pub landlords aren’t forced into using CCTV when it is not necessary to do so.

Concerns were raised by pub landlords and the public that council licensing authorities have been making CCTV a legal condition of every pub license. To tackle the problem, the Government has announced that the blanket use of surveillance in pubs will end, with a new stricter code of practice being in place that will strike a proper balance between privacy and security.

Community Pubs Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, commented that:

“CCTV has a role to play in stopping and deterring crime in anti-social behaviour hotspots. But well-run community pubs that don’t have a public order problem shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush.

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Yet more Communications Data Bill confusion

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Privacy, Surveillance, Technology | 2 Comments

phone_exchangeDuring the debate about the Communications Data Bill, one of the points we repeatedly made was that while this bill was not about reading the contents of messages, but that the details of who you communicate with were still incredibly private information.

In the aftermath of the atrocity in Woolwich, The Prime Minister was absolutely right to warn against knee-jerk reactions. Sadly, various voices have called for the legislation to be revived, despite widespread criticism from two Parliamentary committees and two polls over finding the public still opposed it’s introduction.

If, as has been reported, these individuals were already of concern to the security services then it is of course right they were subjects of surveillance activity. It is not yet clear if these individuals could have been put under closer surveillance.  That is an important question to be asked.

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Woolwich and Communications Data

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Online privacy, Privacy, Surveillance | 2 Comments

commons day

Deputy Director Emma Carr has contributed this piece to Index on Censorship’s website.

John Reid and others’ attempt to make a political argument about “essential” legislation just hours after the brutal murder in Woolwich this week was remarkable, given how little was known at the time and the fact the victim’s family had not even been informed of his death.

Yes, it is right to examine how our security services could have been aided to prevent the horrific scenes we saw in Woolwich this week, but to jump to conclusions and use the politics of fear to promote an agenda before the any detail is available is simply wrong.

Indeed, as the facts have begun to emerge, it seems the answer may look very different to the draft Communications Data bill.

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Could the AP scandal happen in Britain?

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Databases, Freedom of Expression, International, Police, Privacy | 1 Comment

police-3In a word, yes.

When news broke of the US Government’s wholesale request for data on Associated Press journalists,

The New Yorker quickly highlighted how US law allowed the Department of Justice to go straight to the phone companies, without notifying AP (although it’s own guidelines said this should not normally happen.) Because of this, there was no opportunity to test the justification for such a massive intrusion on the freedom of the press.

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