Concerns over new surveillance powers


The NO2ID campaign  that I am involved in has issued the following press release on the new surveillance powers contained within the investigatory Powers Bill that the Home Secretary has introduced to parliament today.

Some of the main points for me is that in 2014 there were 517,236 requests for people’s communication data. This metadata could include for instance the fact you called alcoholic anonymous or a sexual health clinic (so it can be very personal). Secondly it’s not just the security services, or even the Police who access this data but a whole host of other public bodies. I have a much bigger concern that officials like the tax man, council or parking enforcement officer have access to this information, then I do the secret services who are fighting terrorists. Thirdly its the fact that the vast majority of all this snooping can be done without judicial oversight.

A copy of NO2ID’s press release on the topic can be found below. 

The new draft surveillance bill is like an iceberg, with a vast bulk of technical change obscured beneath the surface, according to civil liberties organisation NO2ID. Theresa May presented the Investigatory Powers Bill to parliament today as a measure “consolidating and updating our investigatory powers, strengthening the safeguards”. But it amounts to a dramatic alteration in the powers already available not just to the intelligence services, but to police, tax inspectors, and officials and regulators in almost every department of state. It replaces several pieces of complex and technical legislation.
Guy Herbert General Secretary for NO2ID, said:

“I would have more sympathy for the Home Secretary if she did not resort to glib hypotheticals about kidnapped children. This is not a proposed bill that is easy to understand or straightforward in effect.”
“The much trumpeted change in oversight focuses on a tiny portion of cases, the handful of warrants issued by Secretaries of State every day. The real issue is the tens of thousands of surveillance actions a day carried out by officials.”

“The Bill is an iceberg. It is easy to focus on the sunlight glinting on a few peaks, it is harder to grasp the important bits beneath the surface. What is clear is that Parliament is expected to deal with all of this before the expiry of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act at the end of 2016 – to swallow the iceberg before its dimensions can be fathomed.”

Data retention – Devil is in the detail

Emergency legislation has been announced today on new data retention legislation. I think those of a Liberal mind should rightly be very sceptical of legislation which apparently had the backing of all three party leaders before it was announced to the public.  To give a bit of background there is a need for new legislation after the EU data retention directive got struck down by the CJEU. Since that happened in April the UK has been carrying on with its blanket data retention regime.

The significant part of that ruling is in para 58

“Restrict retention to data that is related to a threat to public security and in particular restrict retention to a particular time period, geographical area and / or suspects or persons whose data would contribute to the prevention or prosecution of crime.”

That should kill blanket retention dead, unless the UK can demonstrate it’s needed for national security and proportionate for a democracy. That will probably be heading to Strasbourg for a ruling (although it’s worth noting Terrorism is generally considered  a criminal issue than national security issue, as despite the serious threat it posses to life and property it rarely if ever actually threatens the integrity of the state).

New Secretary of State powers

The Liberal Democrats were/are  in a very powerful situation to demand compliance with that aspect of the ruling as the price of any new legislation. The new legislation is presented to us as the status quo with some additional protection for civil liberties. This isn’t actually the case as it contains a number of provisions for the Secretary of State to make future changes to it via means of Statutory Instruments (a parliamentary procedure that lacks real scrutiny). In this regard it is actually enabling legislation that allows for the potential of illiberal measures to be pushed through by the Home Office and Home Secretary. Either in another future emergency, or more likely overtime slowly with a series of seemingly banal changes.

The Secretary of State may by regulations make further provision about the
Such provision may, in particular, include provision about
(a) requirements before giving a retention notice,
(b) the maximum period for which data is to be retained under a retention 5
(c) the content, giving, coming into force, review, variation or revocation
of a retention notice,
(d) the integrity, security or protection of, access to, or the disclosure or destruction of, data retained by virtue of this section


Any power to make regulations under section 1ó
(a) is exercisable by statutory instrument,
(b) includes power to
(i) confer or impose functions (including those involving the exercise of a discretion) on any person (including the Secretary of State),

No expert or public input

The other real problem this legislation has is that technical legal and privacy experts have been given no opportunity to contribute towards it. As they normally would do via means of public briefings to MPs and political parties. It’s disingenuous to spin this as an emergency as the need for new legislation stems from a court ruling that happened three months ago. Nor has there been any public debate around the nature of new powers that are needed. Both of these things should give any mature democracy cause for concern. It’s also a strategic mistake as it’s really going to upset privacy and civil liberty groups. Hence why you have reactions like this from ORG, a negative reaction from Liberty and from NO2ID.

No Emergency stop the data retention stitch up 

DRIP bill means future torrent of surveillance powers.

Emergency data law: “A debate for the future”? 

Speaking at ORG Con North against Snoopers Charter

I’ve been invited through my work with the NO2ID campaign  to speak at ORG Con North this Saturday. ORG Con North is a conference in Manchester hosted by the Open Rights Group, who are a campaign who protect our rights in the digital age. I’ll be speaking on a panel entitled ‘The Snoopers Charter: Can we stop it?’. Campaigning against surveillance without a court warrant and juridical oversight is a core part of my own liberal values, and something I am very passionate about. There is a preview of part of my talk and my with NO2ID up on Sound cloud. It’s not too late to get tickets for the event, and it’s only a short hop on the train over from Calderdale. So hopefully see some of you there at what looks set to be an interesting and stimulating day of debate, politics and protection of liberty.

2012 Privacy Review

Privacy issues are a major interest of mine, and a large chunk of my work involves being the campaigns manager of NO2Id. This time of year it is the custom to take a look back over the past 12 months and summarise the year that was.

So pour yourself a cup of tea, grab one of the last of the mince pies and settle down for my 2012 privacy review.

January 2012

The year started with a handful of census refuseniks getting fined for not handing over their personal details to the Office of National Statistics. The 2011 census was bigger than ever, and particularly controversial both because of the involvement of BAE systems, and a change in the law that destroys the confidentiality of census information. 

The EU announces sweeping changes to data protection law. NO2ID warns they mustn’t be Trojan Horse for yet more data-sharing. 

The Public Accounts Committee was critical of plans to replace all 53 Million of our gas and electricity meters with ‘smart’ meters that can remotely read  and monitor our electricity usage to such an extent they can pick out the usage adventures of different household appliances.

The Cabinet Office published the responses to its ‘Making Open Data Real’ consultation. Concerns were highlighted by responders regarding the difference between public open data,  and pseudonymised or even pseudo-anonymised private data.

The UKBA agency decided it wasn’t a good use of their time to fingerprint illegal immigrants coming in through the Channel Tunnel.

February 2012

 Manchester and Birmingham airports decide to ditch their £9 million Iris Recognition Immigration System  (IRIS) after 1 in 10 passengers using the system were being rejected. A setback for fans of biometrics, and those who think public money should be spent wisely.

The Telegraph reveal 20,000 have been smeared and falsely labelled as criminals by the Criminal Records Bureau. How many got compensation, for being victimised by the database state?

Reports begin to emerge that the Home Office is planning a major new surveillance project.  NO2ID calls for a revision of revision of the legislation surrounding surveillance, to require a judicial warrant and reasonable suspicion of actual crimes.

March 2012

The DVLA came under criticism for selling 43,000 drivers personal details to parking enforcement companies in just 20 months. Demonstrating the trade in personal details is thriving!

The DWP reveals £25 Million plans for Identity Assurance . Meanwhile at the DWP concerns start to grow over the Universal Credit system and real time time tax reporting. 

Mass surveillance of travel gets a boost as Damien Green unveils a revamped e-borders system. As you can see the coalition is doing a great job here in ‘rolling back the database state’.

April 2012

The ‘Snoopers Charter’ is the main news this month, as the Home Office’s plans to resurrect the Intercept Modernization Programme under the anodyne title of Communications and Capabilities Development Programme hit the press. NO2ID compares the plans to putting a ‘bug in every living room’.

The news releases a furious response from civil liberties campaigners, Conservatives such as David Davis MP and grass roots Liberal Democrat activists. Liberal Democrat Dr Jenny Wood moves an amendment highly critical of the surveillance plans at  the parties spring conference. In response to mounting pressure Clegg announces the bill will be brought forward as a draft bill.

May 2012

Legal experts point out that new laws would be required before plans by Francis Maude to create ‘fast-track mechanisms’ for data-sharing between government departments could be enacted. There is widespread concerns Maude’s plans have a striking resemblance to defeated data-sharing plans that Jack Straw placed within clause 154 of the Coroners and Justice Bill. Such measures would mean more of your personal data shipped around government departments for all sorts of administrative purposes.

The Protection of Freedom Act gained Royal Assent on the first of May. The Act was widely regarded as a ‘let down’ by civil liberties campaigners. It does however make a few improvements, setting out new laws to restrict the instances where DNA samples can be collected.  However we are yet to see any deletion of the DNA samples collected on millions of innocent people.

Dispatches run a programme that helps to expose the secret trade in your personal details. Much of the information gained and then sold is obtained through supposedly secure database systems.

A small victory for privacy as patients get the right to opt-out of the GP extraction service. Dr Neil Bhatia, GP turned privacy campaigner rightly points out the Government has to launch an information campaign in order to prevent ‘degradation in confidence’ between GPs and patients.

June 2012

Unable to let go of the past the ghost of Blair returns to tell us the only way to tackle illegal immigration is with ID cards. Which seems most unfair to the e-borders scheme 🙂

The Draft Communications Data Bill is published. NO2ID is highly critical of the plans describing the Coalition as offering a surveillance free-for-all. The bill is worse then many have feared. Opposition mounts amongst civil liberties campaigners with Liberty, Big Brother Watch, Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, Index on Censorship and NO2ID working together to oppose the plans. Parliamentarians are joining in with criticisms too as  Dr Julian Huppert MP  launches in with concerns over clause 1 of the bill. 

July 2012

Policy Exchange claim Big Data could save the UK £30 Billion pa with their ‘The Big Data Opportunity Report’. As ever Guy Hebert is on the ball “This looks like the latest metastasis of the Whitehall information-sharing cult. Not so much lacking privacy but unable to see its relevance when some vague assurance of ‘public benefit’ is waved around. You are not the customer of this sort of statism, you are the product.”

The joint parliamentary committee to examine the Draft Communications Data Bill has its first meeting. The call goes out for evidence, and civil liberties campaigners start putting pen to paper.

As do stars condense and form from hydrogen clouds, so do databases form from clouds of reactionary thought within White Hall – July greets us with the news that the UKBA is planning a ‘national allegations database’. It sounds like something hideously Orwellian and that is because it is. The allegation database will track hearsay, fears, and speculations.

August 2012

David Cameron announces that your most sensitive private medical records will be sold off to private researchers. Any morality about selling your most sensitive medical records to private companies without your consent gets ignored amongst promises it will aid medical research. Prof Ross Anderson sums up the problems perfectly. “The fundamental problem is this: If your GP record is sent to the MHRA, then even if they strip off all the personal ID and give you a random number, then somebody who knows about some episodes in your past, such as an appendix operation, or knee surgery, can zoom in on you. You cannot give out longitudinal records except with quite extraordinary amounts of care.”

Big Brother Watch release their report ‘A legacy of suspicion: How RIPA has been used by local authorities and and public bodies’.

September 2012

The joint parliamentary committee on the Draft Communications Bill publishes a treasurer trove of opinion and analysis on the bill. The written evidence contains submissions from a whole host of privacy experts, computer scientists and civil liberties groups.  

A court clerk demonstrates the power databases have to administer justice. Withdrawing a warrant on a fine issued on a friend, and making illegal criminal records checks. No one knows how many more cases like this go undetected.

The ANPR system tracks motorists around the country, and then stores these details at a central data-centre for a number of years. The location of the cameras is kept secret, and citizens are refused to even see the record logs of where they have been tracked. We know this as I tried myself to get my records back using powers under the data protection act. In September it emerged that the average motorists is clocked about 200 hundred times a year on this system. 

October 2012

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls for greater internet surveillance to help combat cyber terrorism.  The Home Secretary welcomes the report and suggests this is what the ‘snoopers charter’ will help achieve. Interestingly this timely report also happened to be funded by the UK government.

The Information Commissioners Officer (ICO) sees and opportunity with the draft communications bill and calls for more public funds to protect the public from snooping plans.

Secret databases run to create union blacklists hits the press again. Thousands of people have had their livelihoods taken away as a result of this shameful practice.


November 2012

Anyone concerned about their medical privacy, and plans to sell their data to private research companies may in November have had their fears confounded, when it emerged the NHS managed to lose track of 1.8 million patient records in a year. 

The ICO undermines its earlier claim it needs money to protect privacy by releasing a code of practice that states anonymised data does not have to provide a 100% guarantee an individuals privacy to be lawful. 

The Electoral Services and Administration Bill gets scrutinised by the House of Lords. Plans for a new individual electoral roll will see new data-matching trials going ahead in an attempt to route out people who have chosen not to register to vote.

Another alarming story to emerge in November is that 8 million children are on a secret database. Taking inspiration perhaps from the Lord of the Rings, the esoterically named ‘One’ database has been created by Capita, and is recording details on children’s age, sex, address, academic record, absenteeism, special needs and bad behaviour.

In other news affecting our schools it emerged that ministers are planning to ‘maximise the value’ of kiddy data ‘resource’. NO2ID address its concerns on Radio 4’s You and Yours.

December 2012

The much anticipated joint committee’s report on the draft communications bill was released in December. NO2ID said there was ‘no case for push-button surveillance’.

There was widespread condemnation of the bill in the committees report. Liberal Democrats are quick to use the bill as a means of differentiation between themselves and the Conservatives, and this narrative of a coalition bust-up between Clegg and May suites the media. 

40 Tories warn: Reform the snoopers’ charter or we’ll stage a full-scale revolt. Dominic Raab MP shows it just the Liberal Democrats that have issues with the ‘snoopers charter’ by organising a letter signed by 40 Tory MPs who all oppose the bill.

Wannabe super snoop and arch securocrat behind the ‘snoopers charter’ Charles Farr makes the mistake of becoming the story, and  is forced out of the shadows to make a public appearance in public. 

After all the Christmas feasting, there still seems time to fit in one last wafer thin database. Contact Point MkII appears to make an appearance at the end of 2012 . This risks of this system are obvious, as social services try to track down ‘suspicious’ cases of children who are taken to A&E, parents who may already be identified as living in a ‘troubled family’ will be put off taking their child for emergency treatment for fear of being labelled an abuser.


Electoral Roll & Privacy

As you may or may not know there are some changes occurring to the electoral roll. The main change is a move away from household registration, towards individual registration is enabled by theThe Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. is currently passing through parliament. These changes are going to have a significant impact on personal privacy, so I thought it might be useful to sum some of these up in a post.

Positive Impacts on Privacy

Each individual now has the choice to opt out of being on the edited roll – Previously the head of a household (or whoever happens to open the form) could fill it out for everyone living there. This could lead to situations whereby individuals are without their knowledge are entered onto the edited roll by another member of their household, without their knowledge. The edited roll is available to purchase commercially for marketing purposes making it very unfriendly to privacy concerns. Clearly moving towards a system where individuals had to opt-in before their private information is shared for marketing purposes would make sense.

Anonymous registration – This isn’t a result of individual registration, but as a recent change i’ve included it here. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 gives individuals who believe they maybe at risk from being on the roll the right to register anonymously. Your Electoral Registration Officer who can be contacted through your local authority has the power to register you anonymously, however there are often requirements such as providing evidence and justification for anonymous registration. Something that isn’t always available to people in vulnerable situations.

Change in the name of the edited / unedited roll? – It isn’t clear to most people what is meant by the terms edited and unedited roll. I have had confirmation from Lord Rennard that this is one issue that is being considered by parliament  Making it explicitly clear what people are doing when they choose to go on the unedited or edited roll and its privacy implications would be an improvement.

Negative impacts for privacy

Data-Matching– Ahead of the introduction of the individual register the Government is allowing officials to trawl through a series of databases in order to try find people who are not on the roll. The Electoral Registration Data Schemes (no. 2) Order 2012 enables further pilots of data-matching. The results of these pilots will then be passed onto the Electoral Commission who will analysis how useful they have been. Any data-matching schemes such as this provide a privacy risk, as information will have to be extracted from a range of systems, and passed onto another organisation to match them together. These data-sharing protocols create a risk of data loss, and also for data-theft. In addition it could set a precedent for future data-sharing for other possible administrative purposes.

Thankfully people ‘found’ through these schemes will not be automatically added to the electoral roll. They will instead be sent a letter inviting them to register onto the new individual roll. It is interesting to note (Hat tip David Moss) that the DVLA are currently refusing to take part in these pilots (column 474). Could this be because they have privacy concerns or because around 32% of its records contain errors? 

Function Creep – An individual electoral roll database will be a more lucrative target for exploitation by other organisations. Currently the unedited full roll can be sold to government departments, used for crime prevention purposes, used for vetting job applicants and also given to credit reference agencies. A register based on individuals, rather than households will arguably be a move closer towards something akin to a national identity database. Further restricting the uses the roll can be used for, would go some way to prevent such function creep.

Providing more personal data – In order for officials to check the identity of people registering, individuals will be required to supply more personal information such as a date of birth and a national insurance number. Both these pieces of information can be useful to criminals seeking to commit identify fraud. There is clearly an increased risk this information could fall into the wrong hands through stolen post, or theft from elections offices.