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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

Research and reports

Traffic Spies – a £300m surveillance industry

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, CCTV cars, Research and reports, RIPA, Surveillance | 5 Comments

Image20Today we have published our latest report, Traffic Spies, highlighting how hundreds of councils have turned to static CCTV cameras and spy cars to raise £312m in revenue.

Many councils are continuing to use CCTV to hand out fines, despite the government publishing a Surveillance Camera Code of Practice highlighting the need to use CCTV for traffic offences “sparingly”, this research highlights that the number of CCTV cars in operation in the UK has increased by 87% since 2009.

The question must therefore be asked, if CCTV cameras are about public safety, why are local authorities able to use them to raise revenue? Furthermore, why are local authorities publishing no meaningful information about their use of CCTV for parking enforcement? Read more

Support grows for surveillance transparency

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, GCHQ, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Police, Research and reports, Surveillance, Technology | 7 Comments

commons dayLast November we launched our ‘Time for Transparency’ campaign, revealing new polling that showed 66% of people want more information about how surveillance powers are used, with 70% wanting companies like BT and EE to publish their own reports about the requests they receive, as companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft now regularly release.

Today we are publishing a paper detailing further proposals to improve transparency, following wide ranging discussions with companies, regulators and political figures, as well as discussions with people in the United States. The paper outlines how the Interception of Communications Commissioner should publish a breakdown of how individual agencies use powers to access communications information – currently just one total figure is published – as well as calling for clarification about whether British companies are handing over data ‘in bulk’ on thousands or millions of customers.

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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 | 37 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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Democratic value? The sale of the edited electoral register

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Councils, Data Protection, Databases, Research and reports | 9 Comments


Today we have published our latest report, Democratic Value, looking at the scale of the commercial use of the edited electoral roll.

Councils have no say in selling the register – and it probably costs more to administer than they bring in through charges – but threats of legal action mean they can do little to assist residents and there is not widespread awareness of understanding of why there are two versions of the electoral roll.

This confusion exacerbates the fundamental privacy issue with councils being mandated to law to make available for purchase the names and addresses of those who do not opt-out. That is a law for Parliament to change, and it should do so at the soonest opportunity.

Between 2007 and 2012, more than 2,700 different organisations and individuals purchased the edited register, with some local authorities seeing far higher levels of use.

Four councils sold the edited register to more than 50 buyers (Westminster, Elmbridge, Kensington and Chelsea, Broadland) while 19 councils sold the edited register to between 25 and 49 buyers.

The sale of personal information by public authorities, particularly for marketing purposes, is something that should never be routine. It undermines trust and confidence in the wider public sector’s ability to protect people’s privacy and potentially deters people from engaging in a critical part of our democracy.

This doesn’t mean the electoral roll shouldn’t be accessible to the public, but the current situation is not one designed to bolster our democracy.

We wholly agree with the Electoral Commission, the Local Government Association and The Association of Electoral Administrators that the edited register should be abolished. We believe that the existence of the edited register impacts on election participation as people are concerned about their personal information being shared for marketing purposes and undermining trust in the electoral registration system.


We have produced a draft letter you can use to permanently opt-out of the edited register, which you can find in the Take Action section of the website here.

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 | 14 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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Boom in private investigators risks avoiding surveillance regulation

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Councils, Featured, Research and reports, Surveillance | 31 Comments

photographerOur 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 tree provisions in the US, and broader protection offered by the Fourth Amendment, UK law risks failing to join up the evidential admissibility process and the regulation of surveillance.

While the surveillance doesn’t come cheap, with some organisation spending thousands of pounds on a single operation, the primary finding of the report is the potential loophole in surveillance regulation that is being exploited following the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Accordingly, we are seriously concerned there is a gap in UK law emerging around surveillance and the ability of third parties to conduct surveillance operations without proper regulation. Some of these operations were conducted at the request of insurers, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.

The government has acted to control surveillance by local councils but this research shows more than ever before public bodies are using private detectives to do their snooping. The law is at breaking point and public bodies shouldn’t be able to dodge the legal checks on them by using private investigators.

Commenting on our report, Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles (no relation!) said “Such powers can only be used for serious crimes, and require a magistrates’ warrant. It is totally unacceptable if councils are trying to sidestep these important new checks and they should be held to account for acting outside the law.”

With as many as 10,000 people working as private investigators in the UK, we agree with the Home Affairs Select Committee that the current legal framework for regulating their activities is wholly inadequate.

This highlights the ongoing concern that RIPA is not fit for purpose, in failing to deal with evidence and material obtained outside the legislative framework. Equally, the changing nature of surveillance – particularly the ability to search online, through social networks and through semi-public sources of information – further reinforces the need for the law to be reformed to strengthen protection against unwarranted and unauthorised surveillance becoming a frequent occurrence.


Deputy Director Emma Carr appeared on Sky News sunrise discussing the report, with BBC News, Metro, The Daily Telegraph, ITV News, BBC Radio 5 Live, Politics.co.uk, LocalGov and numerous regional media including the York Press, Huddersfield Examiner and the Sunderland Echo reporting our findings.

Public back privacy law action on Google

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Data Protection, Europe, Information Commissioner, Online privacy, Privacy, Research and reports, Technology | 15 Comments

2226178289_a6d36a48dd_oNew research published today by Big Brother Watch/ComRes finds that the majority of the British public are concerned about their online privacy (68%) with nearly a quarter (22%) saying that they are very concerned.

People are more likely to say that consumers are being harmed by big companies gathering large amounts of their personal data for internal use (46%) than they are to say that this enhances consumer experiences (18%).

As European data protection regulators prepare to take action against Google one year on from its revised privacy policy coming into force, more than 7 in 10 (71%) of the British public say that privacy and data regulators were right to investigate Google’s privacy policy and how it allows Google to collect and combine data on consumers.

A clear majority (66%) of the British public say that national regulators should be doing more to force Google to comply with existing European Directives on privacy and the protection of personal data

The message from consumers is clear – regulators were right to investigate Google’s new privacy policy and now they need to do more to force the company to comply with the law.

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Looking back on 2012

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Research and reports | 4 Comments

i paperWe’d like to thank you for your support in 2012 and wish you all the best for 2013.

Looking back on 2012, we’re very proud of what Big Brother Watch has achieved. The Joint Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill concluded the draft Bill needs a comprehensive re-write, adopting a number of Big Brother Watch’s recommendations after we gave oral evidence to Parliament for the first time. We also attended all four party conferences.

We led opposition to Google’s new privacy policy and eagerly await the results of an EU investigation into the company. Our research into how many people had read the company’s new privacy policy was cited by the European Commissioner responsible for data protection, while Big Brother Watch was invited to join the Ministry of Justice’s Data Protection advisory panel.

Southampton and Oxford councils were taken to task after our complaints to the Information Commissioner about their audio CCTV plans for taxis, a story we ensured was heard worldwide.

Free speech has been a major issue of campaigning in 2012, with several successes. The House of Lords voted again to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act, while our opposition to statutory regulation of the press won plaudits and bolstered support for the introduction of a custodial sentence for breaches of the Data Protection Act. We were one of the most vocal critics of decisions to arrest people for postings on social media where the only harm had been some people’s offence and as we called for, new guidance has since been issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions. We campaigned against default-blocking of internet content, a campaign that in the past week has led to Government policy rejecting such an option. We also joined the global internet blackout to oppose ACTA, with the campaign leading to the legislation’s downfall.

The Protection of Freedoms Act introduced a number of measures in Big Brother Watch’s manifesto, from the DNA Database to CCTV regulation. Far more needs to be done, but the legislation was a good start.

2013 is set to be another busy year, with Communications Data, CCTV regulation, school biometrics, privatised surveillance and medical privacy. We hope you can continue to support us.

Research highlights from the year

From CCTV in Schools to the on-going problems of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, our research over the year cast new light on the surveillance state and the widespread civil liberties issues that concern us.We began the year by highlighting how local authorities had spent £515m on CCTV in four years, before exposing that 3 million British people had been background checked in 2011. In March we highlighted how nine in ten users had not read Google’s new privacy policy,Following the Protection of Freedoms Act, we cast our light on the DNA Database, exposing how police forces were not equipped to implement the legislation and reviewed how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act continued to be used by local authorities and public bodies. The report included a foreword from Secretary of State for Local Government Eric Pickles.

Our ground-breaking research into school CCTV exposed more than 200 schools with cameras in changing rooms and toilets, prompting widespread media debate, while Conor Burns MP to authored an excellent paper on the need for reform of the European Arrest Warrant.

Finally, we concluded the year with details of the hundreds of local authorities who had lost their access to the DVLA database, and before the end of the year unveiled new shocking statistics on the CRB system branding innocent people as criminals.
Here’s to 2013!

Whose record is it anyway? Thousands of CRB errors revealed

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Police, Research and reports | 11 Comments

police-3Today Big Brother Watch has unveiled the scale of errors in the criminal record check system.

Nearly 12,000 people over the past five years have wrongly been branded criminals or seen irrelevant or inaccurate information disclosed during criminal record checks.

  • 11,893 people successfully challenged CRB results in past five years
  • £1.98m paid out in redress
  • 4,196 people challenged information held by a local police force
  • 3,519 people given the wrong person’s criminal record
  • 4,088 found inaccurate information or potential wrong identity on police national computer

We’ll be writing to the Information Commissioner to highlight the scale of this issue and the clear issues that this research identifies.

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DVLA tackle 294 public organisations for database abuse

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in ANPR, Communications Data Bill, Councils, Data Protection, Databases, Police, Privacy, Research and reports | 18 Comments

In the past three years, 294 public organisations have faced action over their use of the database containing details of car registrations and driving licenses.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Big Brother Watch, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) disclosed that the organisations were overwhelmingly local authorities, but included Sussex Police and Transport for London.

They all had access suspended, while 38 organisations saw their access permanently revoked. Of the issues identified, 156 came about because of audits of the database use by staff.

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