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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


New guidance only shows the problems of surveillance oversight. Where are the solutions?

Posted on by Dan Nesbitt Posted in Civil Liberties, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, RIPA, Surveillance | Leave a comment

iStock_000016822421MediumFinally clarifying what was already widely accepted, a publication by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has confirmed that surveillance legislation is “complex”. “Surveillance Road Map” (PDF) seeks to set out the responsibilities of each body tasked with overseeing the laws that govern surveillance as well as highlighting some of their overlapping functions.

One of the aims of the guidance is to show members of the public “the avenues available to challenge or complain about any alleged breach of surveillance legislation”. Whilst this is a laudable aim it misses the real problem: that in too many cases roles are unnecessarily duplicated.

One prime example is of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) and the ICO. The guidance states that the two bodies’ CCTV Codes of Practice “dovetail”; in fact they repeat each other. There is no reason for both bodies to be responsible for CCTV oversight. As the document points out the SCC has no “complaints handling or enforcement function”. Action should be taken to rectify this, as a result the SCC could be made responsible for a single, enforceable Code of Practice and the ICO would be able to focus more attention on its other functions.

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Traffic Spies – a £300m surveillance industry

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCTV, CCTV cars, Research and reports, RIPA, Surveillance | 13 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

Ideas to start the debate and reform surveillance

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Communications Data Bill, Data Protection, Databases, Europe, International, Internet freedom, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, PRISM, RIPA, Surveillance, Terrorism Legislation, United States | 1 Comment

Dear Prime Minister,

cc Deputy Prime Minister; Chair – ISC;  Chair – Home Affairs committee; Chair – Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill; Chair – LIBE Committee of the European Parliament; Chair – Joint Committee on Human Rights;

Yesterday you said that you would be happy to listen to ideas to improve the oversight and operation of safeguards concerning our intelligence agencies.

This is an extremely welcome and timely intervention, and an offer that we would like to take up enthusiastically.

Below are just a few of the well-established proposals to improve the operation, scrutiny and safeguards of surveillance powers.

-       Commission independent, post-legislative scrutiny of the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act 2000 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994, legislation that covers much internet surveillance but was written years before Facebook existed and when few households had internet access. If Parliament intends to allow the collection of data from every internet communication, it should expressly say so in primary legislation, covering both metadata and content

-       Publish, as the US Government has done, legal opinions that are used to underpin the ongoing surveillance framework

-       Allow the Intelligence and Security Committee to report to Parliament, and be chaired by an opposition MP, as called for by Lord King. It should also be able to employ technical experts to assist its work.

-       Publish the budget and investigatory capacity of the ISC, Interception of Communications Commissioner and Surveillance Commissioners

-       Reform the Investigatory Powers Tribunal so there is a presumption its hearings are held publicly, that it should state reasons for reaching its decisions and that its judgements can be appealed in court

-       End the need for Secretaries of State to approve appearances of the heads of agencies before Parliamentary committees, and allow agency and service heads to give evidence in public where appropriate

-       Establish an independent body to review the work of the agencies, as President Obama has done with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and ensure it has staff with relevant technical expertise

-       Lift any legal restrictions on British companies from publishing transparency reports about surveillance requests

-       Publish details of the use of surveillance powers broken down by agency, as opposed to the single UK figure currently published, including the scale of international intelligence sharing

-       Enhance whistleblower protection for those who wish to come forward from within the services

We would be delighted to meet with you or members of your Government to discuss these issues. At a time when the internet is an inescapable part of daily life, the modern economy and the delivery of public services, it is surely paramount that the laws that govern surveillance are fit for a digital age, and that the safeguards that operate are robust, properly resourced and can command public confidence.

Yours sincerely,

Anne Jellema, Chief Executive Officer, World Wide Web Foundation

Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group

Gus Hosein, Executive Director, Privacy International

Guy Herbert, General Secretary, No2ID

Nick Pickles, Director, Big Brother Watch

Professor Peter Sommer

Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, Cambridge

Caspar Bowden, Independent privacy researcher

Douwe Korff, Professor of International Law, London Metropolitan University

Judith Rauhofer, University of Edinburgh

Duncan Campbell, Investigative journalist and author of European Parliament report on Echelon

NCA lacks oversight and transparency

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in CCTV, Civil Liberties, Freedom of Information, Police, Privacy, RIPA, Surveillance, Technology | Leave a comment

police-3The National Crime Agency (NCA) has been launched today by the Home Office with announcements that it will have access to some of the most high tech surveillance tools available but will also promote an environment of transparency and openness. Yet, with an exemption from the Freedom of Act and being regulated by outdated legislation, how accountable will the Agency be?

The NCA has billed itself as being more open and transparent than its predecessors, yet it won’t be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) on the basis that this would “jeopardise its operational effectiveness and ultimately result in lower levels of protection for the public.” Considering the Agency will have highly intrusive surveillance techniques at its disposal, it is remarkable that it is allowed to be able to use them behind a cloak of secrecy. FOI would not prevent intelligence sharing, protecting sources of information or expose police tactics and technology. Indeed, every police force in the country and the Association of Chief Police Officers all manage to operate with FOI applying to them.

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A failiure of oversight that goes beyond the police

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Information Commissioner, Judicial review, Police, Press Office, RIPA, Surveillance, Terrorism Legislation | 2 Comments

police-2The revelations about the Metropolitan Police’s efforts to discredit the family of Steven Lawrence have rightly brought cross-party condemnation. Taken alongside disclosures from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the wider questions about the oversight of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are too important to ignore.

As David Davis MP wrote in the Guardian:

“Sadly this is not an isolated example. Back in 2002 the Labour government set out to smear members of the Paddington Survivors Group, an organisation made up of those injured in the rail crash that killed 31 people. When the group’s leader, Pam Warren, dared to criticise Stephen Byers, then transport secretary, muckraking spin doctors quickly went digging for dirt on her political affiliations and even her sexual history.

Government officials have been on the receiving end of these tactics too. Soon after the communications adviser Martin Sixsmith left the Department for Transport over the “good day to bury bad news” scandal, critical stories appeared in the press. Spin doctors even asked journalists to try and extract embarrassing information from Sixsmith’s friends and colleagues.”

This is before you consider that we still have nowhere near got to the bottom of Britain’s involvement in extraordinary rendition, there has yet to be an inquest into the death of Mark Duggan and the revelations about the Serious and Organised Crime Agency failed to act for six years on evidence of large scale hacking of communications by private investigators and legal firms, among others. This follows the scandal of the Hillsborough inquiry and the atrocious behaviour of some officers.

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Is anonymous whistleblowing a thing of the past?

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Civil Liberties, Privacy, RIPA, Surveillance | 1 Comment

filesWe have warned on multiple occasions about the abuse of surveillance powers by public authorities and the subsequent importance of having judicial approval for officials who want to snoop on us, whether it is in the ‘real’ world or online.

Last year we highlighted that more than three million authorisations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) were issued, leading to questions about how and why the powers are being used.  We also published research that shows that HMRC made 41,351 snooping requests for details of phone calls and mobile texts between 2009 and 2011. The only police forces to make more requests in the same period were the Metropolitan police and Merseyside police.

It has since come to light that HMRC has used surveillance legislation to identify a whistleblower who uncovered a ‘sweetheart’ deal with Goldman Sachs. Osita Mba had used the Public Interest Disclosure Act to write to the National Audit Office and two parliamentary committees in 2011 saying that the head of tax, Dave Hartnett, had “let off” Goldman Sachs from paying at least £10m in interest. The identity of Mba was then revealed to HMRC by the clerk of the public accounts committee, who sought clarification that he was a genuine revenue employee.

Following the story appearing in the Guardian in October 2011, Mba was put under internal investigation by the revenue, useing RIPA to access the emails, internet search records and telephone calls of a revenue solicitor, and his wife, Claudia.

Perhaps shockingly for many, RIPA allows HMRC the ability to view highly personal information of taxpayers, including the websites accessed, the mobile calls made or received, the date and time of emails, texts and phone calls. Despite the revenue claiming that RIPA powers “can only be used when investigating serious crime”, it is very clear from the use of the powers in this case, that this isn’t always so.

We have seen how new surveillance powers that are created, intended only for the most serious of crimes, very quickly becomes available to everyone from councils to the Health and Safety Executive. It is unacceptable for public authorities to keep secret details of why they are spying on the public and their own employees and to do so without seeking a court’s approval. Judicial approval for spying on us should be the norm, not the exception and the public have a right to know why and how these powers are being used.

The social media shaped hole in surveillance law

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Online privacy, Police, Privacy, RIPA, Social Networking, Surveillance, Technology | 4 Comments

facebook_logo-300x99Over the last decade there has been an increasing change in the nature of surveillance – particularly the ability to search online, through social networks and through semi-public sources of information, reinforcing the need for the law to be reformed to protect the public from unwarranted surveillance.

What needs to be made very clear is that just because information is on the internet, it does not necessarily follow that the police should collect and analyse it. It is essential that it the gathering of information is proportionate, necessary, balanced against the need of police to do their job, allows for a free and open internet and meets the public’s expectations of privacy.

Our recent report on the use of private investigators by public authorities highlighted how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is in fundamental need of reform to protect against unauthorised surveillance; whether that be acquiring data through social media websites or the use of private investigators undertaking surveillance without appropriate supervision and authorisation. As the Joint Committee on the draft Communications  Data Bill Warned, the “language of RIPA is out of date and should not be used as the basis on new legislation.”

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Common sense returns for bin fines

Posted on by Emma Carr Posted in Bins, Civil Liberties, RIPA, Surveillance | Leave a comment

Untitled 28. Wheelie Bin - Auckland, 2011Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP has announced that new legislation will be introduced this year which will scrap hefty fines for putting a bin out on the wrong day. Talking to the BBC Sunday Politics Pickles promised: ’Fines for putting a bin out on the wrong day would be scrapped. If you put the wrong yoghurt pot into the wrong bin, it is ludicrous to fine people.’

This is an issue that we have been keeping an eye on for several years. Lifting The Lid highlighted that 68 local authorities had been secretly putting microchips in residents’ bins. The research revealed that at least 2.6 million households have had their bins microchiped. Eric Pickles is absolutely right to take action to abolish these powers and to try to bring some sanity to the way councils seemingly view themselves as a police force free to pass absurd rules and dole out fines on a whim. Read more

Cambridge Council doesn’t let the law get in the way

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Civil Liberties, Councils, RIPA, Surveillance | 6 Comments

“Technically, this amounted to intrusive surveillance, which the police can authorise, but the council cannot.”   Cambridge City Council report.

As reported on the front page of today’s Cambridge News, a report to Cambridge city council, to be discussed next week, highlights how the Council signed off on an operation to install hidden CCTV cameras in the home of a resident, despite not having the legal authority to do so.

The situation clearly warranted action to protect the resident and to ensure a proper prosecution could be mounted. This is why the police do have the power to install hidden cameras – and in this case it should have been the police investigating, not the council. While the Protection of Freedoms Act will now require a council seeks a magistrate’s approval for Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act operation, other public authorities will not.

It highlights just how weak the safeguards around these powers are that a council thought it had the power to plant secret cameras in someone’s home when they absolutely do not.

The failures in authorisation and legal advice are starkly laid out in this case, but in how many other situations are public authorities erring beyond their powers? We do not know, and cases like this only further highlight the weakness of the current oversight regime around RIPA.



Queen points to Communications Data Bill

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Information Commissioner, Internet freedom, Mastering the Internet, Online privacy, Privacy, RIPA, Surveillance, Technology, Terrorism Legislation | 5 Comments

“My Government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.”

So there we have it – the Communication Capabilities Development Programme will have it’s day in Parliament. We don’t know what the draft clauses will be or when we will see them, but the Government remains intent on pursuing legislation in the coming session of Parliament.

If someone is suspected of plotting an attack the powers already exist to tap their phone, read their email and follow them on the street. Instead of scaremongering the Home Office should come forward and engage with the debate about how we improve public safety, rather than pursue a policy that will indiscriminately spy on everyone online while the real threats are driven underground and escape surveillance.

The Home Office have been very good at saying what the problem is, but seem intent on keeping the technical details of what they are proposing secret. Is it any wonder that the public are scared by a proposal for online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy.

They also seem keen to avoid talking about the Black Boxes for real time monitoring capability that we still believe to be part of the plans.

Whether it is a draft Bill or not, if the Home Office needs to tread very, very carefully when it comes to proposing a level of online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy. The proposals will rightly be closely scrutinised in Parliament and I hope the Conservatives fulfil their commitment to immediately give the plans to the Information Commissioner for pre-legislative scrutiny.

It’s far from clear this is technically possible, with encrypted messages, virtual private networks and onion browsers increasingly part of ordinary people’s online habits. Equally, the ‘black box’ measures risk introducing new security vulnerabilities into the UK’s critical national infrastructure. There’s also the pressing question of what the Bill will propose that isn’t already possible under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

And given that Lord Leveson is only beginning to explore how personal data was illegally obtained from private companies, I’m sure there are many MPs who will want to know how proposal isn’t going to create a huge new risk of people snooping on what politicians, celebrities or members of the public do online.

Before the election the Conservative policy on this was “immediately submitting the Home Office’s plans for the retention of – and access to – communications data to the Information Commissioner for pre-legislative scrutiny.” We don’t know if this has happened.

A draft bill will not offer the same wide-ranging consultation as an ordinary white paper, but there is still a long way to go before this becomes law, if indeed it does. Big Brother Watch will be working closely with privacy and civil society groups to ensure that proposals are scrutinised and if it is the illiberal, intrusive and indiscriminate measure we fear we will work tirelessly to ensure it does not pass into law.

You can also download our key issues briefing and our full briefing.