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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

Protection of Freedoms Bill

More than One million pupils fingerprinted at school

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Biometrics, Privacy, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Research and reports | 43 Comments

7075085533_f656a28082_oAs the new school term gets underway, now is the time for parents to check if their children are among the hundreds of thousands of pupils who are using biometric technology.

Today we have published our latest report looking at the use of biometric technology in secondary schools and academies which, based on data from the 2012-13 academic year, makes clear that fingerprints were taken from more than one million pupils.

You can read the report here.


Our research, gathered from Freedom of Information Requests to more than 3,000 schools, shows that at the start of the academic year 2012-13:

  • An estimated 40% of schools in England are using biometric technology
  • An estimated 31% of schools did not consult parents before enrolling children into a biometric system prior to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 becoming law

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When the facts don’t fit your argument for snooping, just make them up

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Surveillance | 21 Comments

commons dayIn today’s Times, Nick Herbert MP has written an article calling for the return of the Communications Data Bill. Although it’s not clear he has read it.

As copyright law prohibits us from reproducing the entire article, we have had to pick and choose which errors to reproduce here. Which has proved tricky, as most of the article is wrong or misleading in some way.

“Clever use of surveillance technology doesn’t recruit terrorists; it puts them in jail

To claim that letting the security agencies find out who terrorist suspects have been talking to is as evil as hacking down an unarmed soldier is a sign of missing judgment.”

Under Part 2 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Security Services and Police already have the power to find out who a suspected terrorist is talking to. How they do this, from covert human intelligence sources, covert surveillance, directed surveillance or intercept is up to them.

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Bin snooper powers of entry binned

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Bins, Civil Liberties, Councils, Privacy, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Surveillance | 6 Comments

Eric Pickles may not have the most glamorous job in Westminster, but he has delivered an early Christmas present for civil liberties campaigners.

The last Labour Government changed the law to give local authorities powers, originally intended for the Environment Agency to tackle serious fly-tipping, to go through people’s bins. Now the Secretary of State for Local Government has announced that no longer will council inspectors have the right to enter your property and rifle through your bin.

This power of entry, along with a few others (including the suspicion of unregulated hypnotists and the sale of German property) were scrapped as part of the Protection of Freedoms Act.

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Calling time on the Grim RIPA

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Councils, Privacy, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Research and reports, Surveillance, Terrorism Legislation | 25 Comments

Our latest report, ‘A legacy of surveillance‘, looks at how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has been used by both local and public authorities in recent years.

A decade on and more than three million authorisations later, our research found how there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how and why the powers are being used – and a clear need for the Coalition to go further to protect civil liberties.

While the Coalition has changed the law to require local authorities to seek a magistrates warrant for RIPA surveillance and only to use it for serious crimes, this is not the end of the matter.

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Reclaim your DNA

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Biometrics, Civil Liberties, DNA database, Home, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Take Action | 5 Comments

Our report on the DNA Database highlighted how the database has continued to grow in recent years, and that despite the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Act innocent people still have no timetable for when their DNA will be removed from the database.

We’re delighted to support GeneWatch’s ‘Reclaim your DNA’ campaign,which aims to bring about the swift removal of innocent people from the DNA database and the associated systems.

There are two ways to get involved. Firstly, write to your MP and ask them to write to the Home Secretary on your behalf.(You can find who your MP is here) We have drafted a letter to your MP for you to use that you can download here.

The three key questions you should ask are:

  • When will your DNA and fingerprint records be removed from police databases;
  • When will your DNA sample will be destroyed;
  • When will new police guidance be issued requiring the removal of your record of arrest from the Police National Computer (PNC)

You should also write to the Chief Constable of the police force who took your sample. (We’ve produced a template letter here.) If you don’t know who the relevant Chief Constable is you can find the individual police force websites here.

Children and young people, or their parents, who were given a conviction, reprimand or final warning for a single minor offence more than three years ago can also ask these questions.

Note: the new law does not require the removal of records from adults who have accepted a caution from the police, and people arrested for serious offences can have their records retained for three years in the first instance, or a further two if there is approval by a Magistrate’s court. However you will be entitled to be notified that an application for retention has been made.

New report: The DNA Database in 2012

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Biometrics, Civil Liberties, DNA database, Europe, Information Commissioner, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Research and reports | 6 Comments

Today Big Brother Watch publishes our report looking at the DNA Database, following the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Act through Parliament.

While the Coalition agreement pledged to introduce the Scottish model, what was passed into law within the Protection of Freedoms Act retains the uncertainty of the previous system, with discretionary powers to retain DNA without judicial oversight where it is deemed to be in the interests of national security or other such criteria as issued by the Home Secretary.

Furthermore, despite more than 900,000 new people being added to the database in the past three years, there remains no timetable for implementing the provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act and our research suggests that the cost of implementation could be double Home Office estimates. Responding to our Freedom of Information Act request, just three forces able to distinguish records of those never charged from those convicted.

The Protection of Freedoms Act is a welcome step towards restoring long-held civil liberties, but the Coalition has failed to fulfill its pledge to reform the DNA database in line with the Scottish system. It should not be for the police to have the final say if someone’s DNA will be retained and the discretionary powers available to the Home Secretary risk this becoming far too commonplace.

Our research suggests that the overwhelming majority of police forces are unable to separate the records of people never charged from those found guilty in court. It would be unacceptable for reform to be delayed or watered down even further because of poor decisions made when the DNA database was first set up. This should be taken as an opportunity to fundamentally review the entire system before the number of innocent people caught up in it grows even larger.

It is deeply troubling that very soon English and Welsh citizens could find that their details are retained and shared in situations where someone from Scotland or another country would not have to worry about something that happened many years in the past.

Met police plan to store phone data indefinitely

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Mobile Phones, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Technology | 9 Comments

According to press reports, the Metropolitan police intend to retain indefinitely information recorded from a mobile phone, without judicial authorisation. This will be irrespective of whether an individual is charged or convicted.

Following the ruling in S and Marper v UK [2008] the legal status of indefinitely retaining personal information was made quite clear, and following the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Act it is the case that DNA cannot be retained indefinitely

Trials are now live in 16 London boroughs, and we have written to the ICO to urge them to investigate the Data Protection Law implications of such technology being employed by the police and whether indefinite retention is, as we believe, an infringement of the law.

The courts have clearly said indefinitely retaining personal information is not acceptable and it appears the Met are flagrantly disregarding the law.

Where someone is not convicted of a crime it is absolutely wrong for the police to hang onto the contents of their phone.

Biometrics in schools under scruntiy

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Biometrics, Civil Liberties, Councils, Information Commissioner, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Technology | 17 Comments

Ministers have announced that the use of fingerprint and face recognition technology in schools, without expressed consent, is to be banned.  This announcement means that parents will be given the right to veto a school’s use of biometric data, while pupils are also expected to be allowed to refuse to participate.

Figures have suggested that around three in ten secondary schools presently use biometric data as a means of identification, paying for lunch, or to record attendance.  The new guidance from Ministers says that they will be required to ask for written permission from a parent before they collect the students’ biometric data.  However, even if a parent agrees a student would have ground to refuse to take part.

The Protection of Freedoms Act, which gained Royal Assent this month, has changed the advice given by the government on the use of biometric data.  The changes mean that where a pupil or parent refuses to consent then the school or college must provide alternatives.  The advice is currently being consulted on, with the final guide due to be published later this year.

This announcement from the government is a welcomed step forward in granting parents and pupils the power to refuse to use biometric devices in schools.   In many cases it is clear that the real motivation for using finger print scanning or facial recognition is often to build up a database of what one person has been doing, for example allowing parents to see what a child has had for their lunch.  Schools should not be using this intrusive and expensive technology to spy on pupils and these moves will make a real difference to protecting pupil’s privacy.

Who decides what you should see online? The Government, of course.

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Internet freedom, Protection of Freedoms Bill, Technology, Web blocking | 13 Comments

Today’s report from Claire Perry MP says pretty much what we expected – it is for bureaucrats to decide what we can and cannot see online.We must then ask permission from our internet service providers to see content that is absolutely legal.

Despite being a report dedicated to online pornography and how anyone wishing to see it should be forced to opt-in with their ISP, the report offers no definition of what is pornography or adult content.

Inevitably, the Internet Watch Foundation was cited as an example of how network-level filtering works. Sadly the report fails to mention the extremely high threshold for sites to be blacklisted by the IWF or the way that the IWF list has driven child abusers into non-web based communication (and therefore out of the reach of the filters, and harder to find for law enforcement.)

The report reccomends that, within 12 months, the Government should mandate network-level filtering by ISPs, although exactly what they are supposed to be filtering is unclear.  The proposals are made without any qualification or apparent consideration of either the technical impact or the likelhood of avoidance measures. It bears all the hallmarks of a policy proposal that is trying to fix a problem without understanding the solution, or even acknowledging there may be unintended consequences.

Without offering – or even attempting to offer – a definition of adult content or pornography, the report demonstrates its fundamental failiure – this is a moral argument, not a serious attempt to understand the challenges of new technology.

Are internet providers are also expected to spy on their customers to check they are not looking at something they should not be? It’s far from clear how filtering works without this kind of monitoring, particularly given the inevitability of evasion measures.

For anyone who doubts the risk that Government plans to monitor web use will not lead to calls for controls on what we can browse, this is a stark warning.

Technology is not a substitute for parenting or a quick fix for social problems and as long as what you’re looking at is not illegal, it is not for the state to stop you.



Some things never change at the Home Office

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Protection of Freedoms Bill | 6 Comments

Today, the Government opposed amendments to the Protections of Freedoms Bill that would have required officials to secure a warrant to enter our homes – except in cases involving national security, trading standards and child protection.

How has the Government responded? A promise for a two-year review.

Apparently “ministers remained committed to protecting homeowners’ rights and freedoms.”

Sadly, actions speak louder than words. It is beyond belief that a Conservative Home Office Minister is so blatantly trying launch this issue into the long grass.

Two years of hand wringing will not change the fact that there are already more than 1,000 laws that give public officials the rights to enter our homes without a warrant. We do not need a consultation to decide that suspecting unregulated hypnotism is going on or extreme comics are being read should not give officials the right to barge into our homes.

In opposition the Conservatives pledged that apart from the police and emergency services, public bodies would require a magistrates warrant to enter a home. The Home Office may have had a change of ministers, but it seems little else has changed and the general public are left high and dry, at the mercy of an army of pen-pushers who can enter our homes as they please.

And for those in any doubt that this is anything less than a total and utter kop-out, the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life Manifesto had this to say on the issue of non-police officials having the power to enter your home without a warrant:

“A Conservative government will cut back the intrusive powers of entry into homes. Public bodies (other than the police and emergency services) will require a magistrates’ warrant, and approval for such a warrant will be restricted to tackling serious criminal offences or protecting public safety. Labour plans to give bailiffs powers of forced entry into homes to collect civil debts will be revoked.”