Is everyday surveillance a religious issue?

Professor David Lyon giving his talk on why surveillance is a religious issue at St Martin's in the Bullring church in Birmingham

Last night (17 October) Open Rights Group Birmingham organiser Francis Clarke attended a talk on surveillance by Professor David Lyon of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada. Here Francis shares his notes from the event along with his thoughts on what civil liberties campaigners can learn from Professor Lyon’s talk.

Continue reading Is everyday surveillance a religious issue?

#SaveOurSources event round-up

Image of red telephone next to the words 'Save Our Sources', illustrating the Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign

We’re pleased to say our #SaveOurSources event at BOM last Wednesday Wednesday (28 September) was a great success. Thank you to all our speakers and everyone who contributed to the event by asking questions in person and via social media.

Here’s a round-up of the event, including links to presentation and other useful resources. Please also check out #saveoursources on Twitter to get a flavour of what we discussed.

If you were inspired by last week’s event, please scroll to the bottom of this page to take action. You can find links below to simple steps you can take to support media freedom and also protect your own online security and privacy.

Continue reading #SaveOurSources event round-up

Join us on 28 September to find out out how the Snoopers’ Charter threatens press freedoms

Image of red telephone next to the words 'Save Our Sources', illustrating the Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign

We’re pleased to announce our next meetup after the summer break will take place on  take place on at BOM (Birmingham Open Media) at 6.30pm on Wednesday 28 September.

Please join us then to find out more about how the Government’s plans to expand online surveillance through the Investigatory Powers Bill (aka the Snoopers’ Charter) threatens press freedoms, why this matters for our democratic society and what action each of us can take to stop the Bill.

Join us to protect press freedom and democracy

Journalists have been some of the fiercest critics of the Government’s plans to expand surveillance powers through the Investigatory Powers Bill, launching the Save Our Sources petition to protect journalistic sources from state surveillance.

The meetup will feature contributions by Paul Bradshaw, Course Leader of Online Journalism MA at Birmingham City University and  Founder of Online Journalism blog and Help Me Investigate, an award-winning platform for collaborative investigative journalism.


Although ORG Birmingham events are free, it really helps if people can RSVP via our meetup page. This helps us get an idea of likely numbers and makes it easy for us to let you know about future events.

Take action!

As well as attending the meetup, you can take the following actions to oppose the Government’s plans and demand targeted, not total surveillance:

Sign the Save Our Sources petition

Use ORG’s easy-to-use tool to Email your MP

Join Liberty’s #NoSnoopersCharter campaign

What is the Investigatory Powers Bill?

In November 2015, the Home Office published the draft Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), which was intended to be a comprehensive new law that would replace the UK’s broken legal framework for surveillance. However, instead of restricting mass surveillance, it will put all of the powers revealed by Edward Snowden and more into law.

Big Brother Watch have created fact sheets that explain the implications of the Bill in more detail.

If passed, the UK will have a surveillance law that is more suited to an authoritarian regime than a democracy. The Don’t Spy on Us campaign is calling for the Bill to be amended so that surveillance is targeted to those who are suspected of a crime, not the entire UK population.

More about ORG

Open Rights Group (ORG for short) is the UK’s only digital campaigning organisation working to protect the rights to privacy and free speech online. With almost 3,000 active supporters, we are a grassroots organisation with local groups across the UK.

ORG Birmingham is a local branch of ORG. We meetup regularly at Birmingham Open Media. You can also keep in touch with us via the ORG Birmingham blog and our Twitter account, @OpenRightsBrum.

The Haystack and what Brexit means for digital rights in the UK

Still taken from The Haystack documentary on surveillance in the UK. The image shows people walking along a crowded street in central London and a news headline which says 'Britain is too tolerant and should interfere more in people's lives, says David Cameron'

On Monday evening we held a screening of The Haystack surveillance documentary at Birmingham Open Media, followed by a discussion of what the recent Brexit vote means for digital rights.

Continue reading The Haystack and what Brexit means for digital rights in the UK

Let’s get together to watch ‘The Haystack’ documentary on 21st century survillance

Still taken from The Haystack documentary on surveillance in the UK. The image shows people walking along a crowded street in central London and a news headline which says 'Britain is too tolerant and should interfere more in people's lives, says David Cameron'

We’re excited to announce we’ll be screening ‘The Haystack’ documentary, which examines the rise of suspicionless surveillance in the UK, at our next meetup on Monday 4 July.

Continue reading Let’s get together to watch ‘The Haystack’ documentary on 21st century survillance

Independent review of bulk powers announced but still no room for complacency over the Investigatory Powers Bill

An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photographer: GCHQ/Crown Copyright

With the EU Referendum dominating the news agenda, you may missed the news on Tuesday that the government has agreed to Labour’s demands for an independent review of the so-called bulk powers set out in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

I’ve previously blogged about how the language the government uses to describe is designed to be as boring as possible in order to disccourage public scrutiny. For an idea of how effective this can be as a tactic, see the comedian Jon Oliver’s piece on the campaign for Net Neutrality, which he memorably described as “even boring by C-Spann standards“.

What are bulk powers and why should you be concerned?

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, the term ‘bulk powers’ gives the government to powers:

  • Tap fibre cables and scoop up vast amounts of global internet data  – essentialy collecting, storing and analysing everyone’s web traffic, emails, messages, Skype calls, etc.
  • Require communications providers collect and store for 12 months internet connection records for all UK citizens – this will show every site you’ve visited, the locations you have visited (thanks to mobile location tracking) and which apps you have installed on your phone.
  • Broad powers to hack internet equipment – instead of hacking a suspect’s computer, authorities will be able to hack the network for the entire Greater London area, putting vital infrastructure at risk.

The easiest way to understand bulk powers is the oft-cited needle in a haystack analogy. The government is seeking powers to gather hay on the whole population, in the hope that if they will then be able to spot the needles (suspected terrorists and other criminals).

The Open Rights Group and other members of the Don’t Spy On Us coalition believe bulk powers constitute mass surveillance, which is fundamentally incomptabile with basic human rights of privacy and freedom of expression. Liberty have produced a detailed briefing on the problems with the bulk powers as they are currently stand.

Reasons to be cautious about the independent review

On the face of it, the announcement of an independent review of bulk powers is to be welcomed. After all, it shows the government is willing to listen to criticism, right?

While the review is a valuable opportunity for campaigners to raise awareness of the problems with  bulk collection, we should be cautious about what difference the review will make for a couple of reasons:

  1. The review will be conducted by David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. While Anderson has received praise for some aspects of his 2015 review of terrorism legislation (A Question of Trust), he was criticised for accepting the case for bulk collection. Are Anderson’s views on bulk collection will have moved significantly in the past year or so?
  2. The goverment is under no obligation to act on the findings of the independent review. Forgive me if this sounds cynical, but the government has so far pushed the bill through parliament and taken onboard very little of the criticisms levelled by no fewer than three parliamentary committees. With the review coming so late on in the parliamentary process (the bill is due to receive its third and final reading in the House of Commons in June), there’s a real chance the government will merely pay lip service to Anderson’s recommendations.

Keep up the pressure – email your MP and sign our petition today

Given the uncertainty which surrounds the inpendent review, we can’t afford to wait until Anderson reports back on bulk powers. It’s vital we keep the pressure up on the government. You can do this by:

As well as keeping up the pressure on politicians, it’s vital we continue to talk to our friends and family about the dangers of the Investigatory Powers Bill. By doing this we can raise public awareness and get more people to oppose the bill.



Why you should oppose the spread of digital rights management

Stop the DRM Habit image by O'Reilly Media
Stop the DRM Habit image by O'Reilly Media
Stop the DRM Habit image by O’Reilly Media

Did you know that today (Tuesday 3 May) is International Day Against Digital Rights Management? I suspect your answer may be no as so far the battle against digital rights management (DRM) has not yet captured the popular imagination in the way that the current battle over strong encryption has.

I believe this state of affairs needs to change and, as we enter the internet of things era, we must not allow digital rights management to extend its reach beyond our computer software and into our everyday household devices and even into our very bodies. Here are my top reasons for opposing DRM.

DRM doesn’t prevent unauthorised file sharing, compelling digital services do

It’s an open secret that most people working in technology don’t like DRM very much and find it a pain to work with. Rights holders, however, continue to insist that DRM is necessary to prevent piracy or unauthorised file sharing and make sure people ‘play by the rules’.

Research in the area of file sharing is always contested. In my view, however, the evidence points towards the carrot of providing compelling, easy to use digital services rather than the stick of DRM restrictions and related legal enforcement measures. The COPIA institute’s report, entitled The Carrot or the Stick? Innovation Vs Anti-Piracy enforcement notes:

“we found little evidence to suggest that the combination of the carrot and the stick is needed. While some entertainment industry executives have argued that these kinds of anti-piracy laws are necessary for authorized services to feel comfortable launching in these countries, the evidence suggests this is simply not true.”

DRM facilitates consumer lock-in

Got a Kindle? Chances are, your library will consist of ebooks bought exclusively through Amazon rather than from a selection of booksellers.

This outcome isn’t simply the result of Amazon offering seamless integration between Kindle hardware and their digital bookstore (which it does). Virtually all publishers insist on encumbering their books with proprietary DRM which only works with certain hardware. This means Kindle ebooks only work on Kindle devices and can’t (legally) be transferred to the Nook or Sony’s ereader.

In placing an artificial restriction on where book lovers can buy and read their ebooks, DRM undermines competition and innovation. Of course there are ways to remove DRM from your ebooks so that you can read them on any device but this is never going to be a mainstream pursuit. Furthemore, under copyright law, it is unlawful to remove DRM even on media you own. This legal barrier prevents companies from making a device capable of reading , regardless of where you purchased them.

Furthermore, legal measures known as anti-circumvention provisions mean it is technically illegal to remove DRM from files, even for media that you purchased. The threat of legal action prevents companies from offering an ebook reader that can read every kind of ebook because to do so would involve removing DRM and converting the ebooks into a standard format.

DRM in web standards threatens permissionless innovation

To date, the development of the web has been characterised by ‘permissionless’ innovation. A person (or most likely a team of people) has a new idea for a new browser feature that users will love, implements it in a browser built using freely accessible standards defined by the W3C consortium and, if the idea proves popular, the person or team enjoys success. Writing for The Guardian today, Cory Doctorow reminds us that 10 years or so ago it was Mozilla who chose to integrate pop-up adblocking into its Firefox browser, a move which delighted users frustrated the ads but which angered publishers who thought they were just great.

Fast forward to May 2016 and the W3C has just last month agreed to proceed with the integration of DRM into web standards as part of its work on Encrypted Media Extensions. In this glorious DRM-encumbered future, any company wanting to include video playback features in their browser will have to get permission from a small group of media companies behind the new EME standard. This will give media companies the power to restrict consumer-friendly innovation. Want users to be able to watch Netflix on your new browser? Better not allow users to install privacy and security-protecting plugins such as Privacy Badger or UBlock Origin.

The elevation of DRM to a core standard of the open web platform tilts the scales away from disruptive innovation which benefits end and back in the direction of cosy, industry-friendly innovation.

DRM and the internet of things

DRM books are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Virtually every week tech blogs such as Techdirt and BoingBoing report on how the internet of things means DRM is rapidly embedding itself in our daily lives.

At best, the spread of DRM is annoying and harmful to consumer choice. For example, Keurig used DRM in the embedded software of its coffee maker to prevent users from using coffee capsules made by other companies. Similarly, there was a public outcry last year when Philip issued a software update to its ‘Hue’ smart lighting system, which overnight prevented compatible non-Philips lightbulbs users purchased from working with the system.

At its worst, DRM poses a growing risk to our health and personal safety. Due to the legal penalties for breaking DRM on software, security researchers were reluctant to report concerns over the potential for hackers to take control of cars via their embedded software systems. Similarly, restrictions on examining car software meant it was more difficult for researchers to spot the problems at VW which resulted in the global scandal over falsified diesel emissions results.

With connected devices becoming the norm, it looks as though DRM is going to be more and more part of our lives unless we stand together and take action. Please support the fight against DRM and help make sure a good few more people know about International Day Against DRM in 2017.

Discover great free and open source software at our next meetup

Rosie the Riveter Free Software/Open Source propaganda by Iwan Gabovitch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We’ll be holding our next meetup on Wednesday 20 April at Birmingham Open Media and we’d love it if you could join us and get involved!

Following on from well-attended practical session on protecting your online privacy and security, we’ll be introducing you to some amazing software packages and tools which you are completely free and legal for you to download.


All the software we’ll be introducing you to will be free and open source. Free software is software that gives you the user the freedom to share, study and modify it. That means it not only costs you nothing to use it (free as in beer), but gives you the right to make changes and contribute improvements (free as in freedom).

Free software and digital rights

As well as helping people access to software they would not otherwise be able to afford, free and open source software is really to protecting our privacy, security and human rights online. Because anyone can study and modify the software code, it is easier to spot and fix security bugs. And because no single company controls the software, it is harder for governments to forces companies to spy on their users as in the recent FBI versus Apple court case.

You can find out more about free software on the Free Software Foundation website.

You should come to this meetup if:

  • You need software such as Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Office for work or education but can’t afford the licence. GIMP is a high quality free alternative to Photoshop while LibreOffice can replace MS Office.
  • Your laptop is a good few years old and is struggling to run Windows. The open source Ubuntu operating system could breathe new life into your computer.
  • You’re worried about how much control Facebook, Google and Apple have over digital and want to find viable alternatives such as Firefox web browser and Signal private messenger.

Don’t forget to bring your laptop/tablet/smartphone with you so that we can try out rather than just talk about software!

RSVP via our Meetup page

We look forward to seeing you on Wednesday 20 April.



Art against the Snooper’s Charter workshop a success

Obi-Wan IPB

Thank you to everyone who was able to join us last Wednesday at Birmingham Open Media for our creative workshop to raise.

We had a fun evening making memes and other visual materials designed to raise public awareness of the government’s plans to push ahead with its controversial new surveillance bill, officially known as the Investigatory Powers Bill but better understood as a Snooper’s Charter.

The idea behind the evening was

You can read a write-up of the event and see the artwork we created over on Birmingham Open Media’s website.

Art against the Snooper’s Charter 

We hoped creating memes and other visuals would help more people understand what’s at the stake if the Snooper’s Charter becomes law. Speaking in parliament the day before our meetup, My local MP Steve McCabe (@steve_mccabe) summed things up quite nicely, saying that if the bill is passed in its current form “we will be the envy of states such as North Korea, China and Iran“.

Envy of North Korea

I’m pleased to report we have had a good reaction so far to our artwork on Twitter, with people re-tweeting and liking our creations and sharing their own.

Give memes a chance

If you’d like to have a go at creating your own protest meme, check out ImgFlip’s easy-to-use Meme Generator web tool.

Want to create something a little more complex? Why not try using the free and open source GIMP image editor to mock up a thought-provoking image like this playful riff on 1984?

Spread the word


If you like any of the visuals we’ve created or decide to create your own, please think about sharing them with your friends and family. Visuals hit home to people in a way that complex arguments and wordy blogs can’t possibly hope to.

If you’re sharing on social media , remember to mention the Investigatory Powers Bill/Snooper’s Charter in your posts and, if possible include the hashtags #IPBill and #SnoopersCharter. If you’re using Twitter, copying in @OpenRightsBrum will also allow us to more easily re-tweet your posts.

Don’t forget to email your MP (and sign the 38 Degrees petition)

While it’s really important we broaden the reach of our campaign through memes, we still need to keep up the pressure on MPs through traditional campaigning methods.

If you’ve not already done so, please use Open Rights Group’s easy-to-use web tool to email your MP today. The more MPs hear concerns from their consituents over the coming months, the better chance we have of stopping the Snooper’s Charter.

Once you’ve done this, please also take a couple of minutes to sign and share the new 38 Degrees petition, Stop Government Plans to Snoop on Your Internet History.

Can you spare a few quid to fight the Snooper’s Charter?

Lastly, the Don’t Spy On Us coalition (which Open Rights Group is a member) is currently a crowdfunding a hard-hitting advertising campaign to raise awareness of the Snooper’s Charter. Please spare what you can to help stop the bill.

Don’t Spy On Us launches fundraiser for Investigatory Powers Bill ad campaign

Can your memes and animated GIFs stop the Investigatory Powers Bill?

Investigatory Powers Bill meme shared by academic Paul Bernal on Twitter

Last week, the Home Office published its revised Investigatory Powers Bill (AKA the Snooper’s Charter) less than three weeks after receiving widespread criticism from no fewer than three separate parliamentary committees.

Chances are, if you’ve visited the Open Rights Group Birmingham you know and care about this already. The problem is, how many of your friends and family who aren’t into digital rights/politics/human rights  first of all know about what the government is up to, let alone are committed to stopping them?

Email your MP today!

Right now, the campaign is focused on asking supporters to email their MPs about the Investigatory Powers Bill. The hope is that if MPs receive enough emails from their consituents expressing concerns over the bill, they will be more likely to carefully consider the bill and not simply nod it through.

If you’ve not done so already, please email your MP today! Open Rights Group has created an online tool for contacting your MP as well as some suggestions for what to say in your email.

Join us next Wednesday (16 March) for art against the IP Bill

As important as it is to email your MP about the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPBill), it can be a little dull. Given the mindboggling array of digital technology at our disposal, and open Rights Group’s base at Birmingham Open Media, surely we can do better than email?

For that reason, we’ve decided to hold a special ‘Art Against the IPBill’ session next Wednesday (16 March). Please sign up via our ORG Birmingham Meetup page.

Investigatory Powers Bill meme shared by academic Paul Bernal on Twitter
Investigatory Powers Bill meme shared by academic Paul Bernal (@PaulBernalUK) on Twitter

Think memes, animated GIFs, looping videos, audio storytelling and anything else that will get across all that is wrong about the IP Bill. Liberty have produced a very good analyis called the IP Bill: the good, the good, the bad and the downright scary but I can’t help but feel it’s missing a LOLcat.

Bring along anything you think will help you create. This could be your trusty laptop, tablet or phone. Alternatively, you might like to go old school and work with a pen and a pad.

We’re hoping to have some fully paid-up artists from Birmingham Open Media and beyond to help inspire us with their creativity. If you’re an artist and you’d like to get involved, please do get in touch or simply drop in on the night.

Looking forward to seeing you next Wednesday. And in the meantime, please don’t forget to email your MP.

Please RSVP for the session via the ORG Birmingham Meetup page