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 ComRes on the public’s attitude to surveillance. Overwhelmingly they want more transparency about powers are being used.

  • 70% of British adults say British companies should publish reports on how often they receive requests for customer data from the police and security services.
  • 66% of British adults say that the Government should publish more data about how surveillance powers are used


Last year more than 570,000 data requests were made – up 15 percent from 2011 – by the police, security services, HMRC and various public bodies, including local councils and organisations like the Charity Commission, Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive. No breakdown of who is using the powers is made available, or what types of crime are being investigated.

Transparency is an essential part of ensuring surveillance powers are not abused and maintaining public confidence that they are being used proportionately. Much more information could be published without any risk to security.

British companies are not bound by secrecy laws from disclosing how many data requests they receive and they should follow the lead of companies like Microsoft and Google in publishing basic information about how many times they hand over customer data. We’re calling on companies like BT, Sky, Vodafone and EE to publish data about how many requests they receive from the police and security services in the same way that Google, Microsoft and Facebook do. Equally, Government can do much more.

Much more can be done to inform the debate. Already in the US much more data is published about how often surveillance powers are used and the Obama administration is moving to publish even more, including how many citizens are affected by requests and what sort of crimes are being investigated. It is possible to give the public a better understanding of how powers are being used without compromising security and it should be an urgent priority to explore what data could be made available.

Recently we wrote to the Prime Minister highlighting several pieces of information that have no security risks and should be public. They were:

  • The budget of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security committee
  • The number of data requests inspected by the Interception of Communications Commissioner to reach his error rate estimate
  • Figures on 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
  • The number of British citizens affected by such requests

Transparency is not a substitute for a proper legal framework and robust oversight. However, it is an important part of evaluating how the overall system is operating and at present far too much information is kept from the public on security grounds when in reality there is no security risk in publishing it. Such unnecessary secrecy only casts doubt upon what is happening.

UPDATE: BBW director, Nick Pickles, spoke to the BBC Sunday Politics (Yorkshire and Humberside) about surveillance transparency



  1. Bryan Boss
    8th November 2013

    I am appalled at the level of surveillance; it’s beginning to look like every website anyone visits or any email sent is in some way checked by the the UK’s security apparatus. Frankly, Stalinist Russia was less intrusive.
    Reduce their budgets – make sure they are accountable and state why a small island off the coast Europe needs such systems. Talk about paranoia.

  2. martin brighton
    8th November 2013

    From personal experience, local authorities and government departments have abused the surveillance laws for no other reasons than political pragmatism, reputation management and damage limitation so as to preserve political hubris and kudos whilst ensuring that unworkable or even unlawful schemes are imposed whilst whistleblowers are gagged.
    Citizens should automatically be informed once surveillance has taken place, be told why they were subject to surveillance, and the outcome of that surveillance. If the issue is one of national security, and the surveillance provided the evidence, this will come out in court anyway. But what about subject to unlawful surveillance as a fishing trip because of the potential of the citizen to cause embarrassment ? They must be told of what has occurred.
    Clearly, local authorities and government departments are out of control, and we have an establishment that would shame the Stasi, KGB, Mossad, etc.

  3. Chris Holvor
    9th November 2013

    Did Post Office Investigations also not have statutory powers? and were they not PACE 67 (9)? Postal Services Act/R.I.P.A- they have 400 plus Investigators-what is their status now?

  4. Anonymous
    9th November 2013

    The MPs will just be brainwashed into how good the secret service is and how much they’re helping to defend us from terrorists.

    NOTE: Moderator, THIS IS NOT SPAM.

  5. Anon
    27th November 2013

    This is all so very depressing and damaging to individuals who find the intrusiveness of this surveillance society we live in too much to bear.

  6. Time for Surveillance Transparency – Big Brother Watch UK | University of South Wales: Information Security and Privacy
    29th January 2014

    […] //www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/home/2013/11/time-surveillance-transparency.html […]

  7. Scott Thompson
    9th April 2014

    Look it’s very simple, if you examine the entire hacking culture it all started in 1970. You see two things rolled out of Berkley LSD & Unix, then Ken Thompson went back to the drawing board and made Plan 9 because he realised Unix was a huge mistake. So how are all these guys hacking into everything everywhere, well thats all down to one company ALCATEL-LUCENT and there research operating system Plan 9 from Bell-Labs. So if these people behave so irrespocibly as to engadge in this kind of behaviour, by putting backdoors in every operating system on the planet, then go around breaking into everything everywhere, then solution is simple, you simply take away there toys and thats the problem solved isnt it!

  8. Scott Thompson
    9th April 2014

    It’s high time we all went backward to 1970’s technology;

    Why? Well lets see what’s good about it, one it’s point to point so you can’t do all this Multipatch TCP bull-crap.

    Two: no Javascript, nothing for you to EXPLOIT or ClickJack

    Three: No high frame video player, so you’ll just have to go back to watching DVD’s on your DVD Player under your television.

    That microsoft xbox – that apple iPod – those Linux source codes and that Berkley insecure daemon are going where they belong, in the TRASH!

  9. Democracy is fine, but ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ in Northern Ireland? « Slugger O'Toole
    6th June 2014

    […] on a national scale, there are numerous dedicated and well resourced pressure groups and journalists willing and able to engage in […]

  10. Basil
    11th December 2014

    Can you trust the system or any one working for various bureaucracies people are easily seduced by a belief en masse,If a figure in authority authorises less senior people to carry out a duty would they take issue even if it went against their principles or judgement,On a national level there is meant to be permutations on a policy and procedure,but when diluted onto local levels is there consistency.All this technology is about galvanising the masses into the same belief system thus making it difficult to question various issues.