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Government Transparency

Protecting privacy involves watching the watchers. We use public information and freedom of information requests to monitor surveillance practices and policies, uses of new technology and the security of government-held information.

In recent years, nations around the world have made great strides in giving their citizens access to government records as a means of fighting abuse of authority and corruption, and promoting freedom of the press.

Public records also present some of the most difficult privacy challenges. On one hand, they may assist individuals in ensuring that a government remains transparent and accountable. On the other, they may be converted from this tool of citizen empowerment to one that empowers governments and businesses to track citizens.

Public records laws are also vital to the enforcement of critical privacy rights such as guarding against the creation of secret databases, enforcing the right to correct inaccurate information, and knowing when, where, and how information collected on citizens is used.

Government Transparency

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Caroline Wilson Palow's picture

Post updated on 14 April to reflect response from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Would you like to read the current international agreements establishing the intelligence sharing arrangements that underpin the work of the NSA and GCHQ? The rules that govern massive, coordinated communications surveillance operations, hacking, and the exploitation of networks and devices in the name of national security and the public interest?

What about the guidelines that set the boundaries of what certain cooperating intelligence agencies can and cannot do to the citizens of their own countries, and to foreigners?

Well, you can’t.

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Kenneth Page's picture

Today's hearing was built up in some media circles as an historic ‘public grilling’ of the heads of the UK’s Intelligence Agencies as Mi5, Mi6 and GCHQ appeared in public in front of their oversight committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Nothing would be further from the truth. It was tame, predictable, and limp. No member of the public concerned with the activities of our intelligence agencies would be comforted by the ISC’s performance. The Committee was almost fawning in their attitude and showed a near sense of embarrassment at having to hold them to account in public at all.

For security reasons, the live steam was on a 2 minute delay in case national security secrets were discussed. From the outset, Chair of the Committee (and former Government Foreign Secretary) Sir Malcolm Rifkind noted that this delay would probably not be needed. That should have given an early indication that the questions would not unsettle those giving evidence.

In the media
Publisher: 
RT
Publication date: 
12-May-2013
Original story link: 

The campaign group Privacy International (PI) in November reported that Gamma International is selling surveillance technology without a proper license.

In the media
Publisher: 
Guardian
Publication date: 
12-May-2013
Original story link: 

Last November, the campaign group Privacy International provided a dossier of evidence against Gamma International to HM Revenue and Customs, urging it to investigate whether there had been any breach of the export control regime.

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Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan's picture

A longer version of this article was previously published in Wired on 10 May 2013.

We all know surveillance is big in Putin’s Russia. What you may not know is that Russia’s surveillance tech is being used all over the world, even in the U.S.

The Kremlin is up to its domes in spy technology. One reason is fear, provoked by the Arab Spring, of a growing and diffuse protest movement that uses social media to organize. Notably, the authorities have taken an interest in DPI (deep packet inspection) tools, which are essential to monitoring the internet Russia-wide. The largest voice-recognition company in Russia, has likewise developed close ties with the authorities.

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Sam Smith's picture

A full analysis of the UK Information Commissioner's "Anonymisation code of practice: managing data protection risk" will take time and working knowledge of how the code is used in practice. 

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Sam Smith's picture

Let's be clear: the Open Data movement is not about the pursuit of complete and unconditional openness. We know that it would be unwise to publish details of police patrol patterns, or the combination to the safe containing the crown jewels. We believe that fundamental reference data like ordnance survey maps, transport timetables, and company information should be freely available to all - information about objects, rather than information about people. Internationally, slightly different standards apply in different countries, but in the UK open data can be defined as "non-personally identifiable data produced in the course of an organisation’s ordinary business". However, between 'open data' and 'personal data' there is a large grey area, and inevitably the boundaries are sometimes blurry. Serious privacy issues usually arise when an institution sees individuals as objects. 

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Sam Smith's picture

A year ago this week, the UK government published a report entitled 'Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens', authored by Dr Kieron O’Hara. It made fourteen recommendations, the most important of which seem not to have been implemented. Meanwhile, the government continues to release data on citizens, and is accelerating these disclosures with some ambitious new policies.

This inaction on privacy and open data is particularly worrying given the UK’s leading role in open data and the international 'Open Government Partnership'. Where the UK leads, other countries often follow, and we are failing dangerously.

The O’Hara report recommends that the government:

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Carly Nyst's picture

Privacy International has urged the Australian Parliament to ensure that rigorous legal and judicial safeguards are at the heart of future reforms to national security legislation. In a submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, Privacy International gave its full support to the objections raised by the Australian Privacy Foundation in its submission to the Inquiry into Potential Reforms of National Security. The Inquiry is considering a discussion paper published by the Australian Attorney-General's Department which envisages a number of draconian reforms to Australian national security and communication policies, including increased powers to monitor and intercept communications. 

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Eric King's picture

As part of Privacy International's investigation into the mass surveillance industry we have examined hundreds of legal documents, brochures and, most recently, patents. Patents are a form of intellectual property; patent-holders publicly disclose their inventions in exchange for the exclusive rights to use and commercialise them for a limited period of time. Patent registries therefore provide a window into the otherwise murky world of the mass surveillance industry.

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