January 09, 2015 | Pam Cowburn

The response to the Charlie Hebdo murders is not more untargeted surveillance

It is still too early to say what could and couldn't have been done to prevent the murder of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on Wednesday

We know that the Hebdo offices were already a target, having been firebombed in 2011, over the publication of a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. We know that the suspects Cherif and Said Kouachi were already known to the security services. We know that France, like the UK has powers to surveill its citizens and, unlike the UK, also has ID cards and an armed police force. But none of this prevented the murder of those 12 people. Despite this, the Head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has indicated that our security services need more powers to prevent similar attacks occuring in the UK.

Not only were the Hebdo murders a horrifying and brutal act, they were also an attack on freedom of speech. The public and private responses of sadness, anger and solidarity, have rightly included calls to defy the terrorists by protecting the very rights and freedoms, that they have attacked.

In the aftermath of such a horrific attack, it may be tempting to see government demands for more powers as the lesser of two evils. As the writer Dan Hodges put it, 'If one way of stopping obscenities like today is providing the security services a bit more access to our e-mails, we must give it to them.'

But as noted above, France's already extensive surveillance powers were not enough to prevent these attacks. While it may be tempting to acquiese to government demands, we don't protect our civil liberties by limiting them further. Mass surveillance treats us all as suspects, reverses the presumption of innocence and has a chilling effect on free speech.

Since Edward Snowden brought our attention to the blanket surveillance of our communications by the security services, there have been repeated calls for powers to scrutinise our personal communications. In the wake of public concern over privacy, the Director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan took the unprecedented step of speaking publicly about surveillance last November, when he called for more co-operation from tech companies in the fight against terrorism.

Andrew Parker has said that GCHQ's powers are 'patchy' and implies that new legislative powers are needed. ORG has long argued that both RIPA and DRIPA need to be repealed and replaced with a clear legal framework. We do not dispute that surveillance is needed to tackle terrorism and other serious crimes. But in a democracy, surveillance must be targeted, limited and authorised by the courts, if our liberties are to be upheld. The police and security services cannot and should not know everything at all times in a liberal democracy. As the editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier said, 'I prefer to die standing than living on my knees'.

Similarly, the UK cannot claim to defend free speech when surveillance legislation is being used to access the communications of journalists or close down the speech of 'non-violent extremists.

As I write this, two sieges related to the Hebdo murders are taking place in France. It is reported that hostages have been taken and more people may be dead. This is not the time for a kneejerk reaction that will undermine our rights to privacy and free speech. We (still) need the frank public debate about surveillance that has been denied us since the Snowden revelations began. We need to talk about how we deal with hate speech without limiting free speech. And most of all, we need to talk about how we promote a tolerant and open society that integrates the marginalised people that terrorism aims to radicalise.

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December 19, 2014 | Elizabeth Knight

ORG signs amicus brief in Microsoft case

This week ORG signed up to an amicus curiae brief prepared by lawyers for Digital Rights Ireland in the ‘Microsoft warrant case’.

In the case, US law enforcement agencies are seeking to access data in an email account held on a server in Ireland. The US government has attempted to use a search warrant to access the data, rather than using the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) agreed between the US and the EU and the US and Ireland. A US court has granted the warrant to search and seize the data, but Microsoft is fighting it.

In the US, an amicus curiae is a "friend of the court" who is not a party to a lawsuit, but has an interest in the matter. In total 10 amicus briefs were filed in support of Microsoft's position, representing 28 leading technology and media companies, 35 leading computer scientists, and 23 trade associations and advocacy organizations.

ORG believes the US government must respect European citizens’ rights to privacy and the protection of personal data. There is an established route for requests for data by law enforcement agencies, which is the use of MLATs. By signing an amicus brief in support of Microsoft’s position ORG is emphasizing that requests for personal data must be made in compliance with national laws and international treaties.

The amicus brief can be found here. It was prepared by lawyers at McGarr solicitors in Dublin, with White & Case acting pro bono in the US.

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December 18, 2014 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

10 Brilliant Moments

2014 has been an amazing year for Open Rights Group. Thanks to our supporters we've had some big wins, and really grown as a movement.

This year we saw thousands of people take part in our campaigns to defend our rights online.

I’d like to share 10 Awesome ORG Moments that you helped make happen in 2014:

Blocked probes

1. The Blocked project was launched and we found out that filters were stopping Chaos Communications Congress from selling event tickets, Maureen from sharing a women’s rights blog and even Open Rights Group from providing a tool to find out about blocking!

Captain America pro-filtering advert

2. The Department of Dirty video made everyone laugh. Some people even tried to complain to the Government about this new department, showing the power of effective satire. 

3. Parody is something that can be used even more now that we’ve won it as a right in UK law! After years of campaigning with you on this issue, we can also have private copying and other sensible exceptions: a huge set of wins for our copyright work.

4. We were the voice of resistence on DRIP, appearing on every news channel from Sky to the BBC when the Government rewrote the idea of emergency by waiting three months to pass emergency legislation, and then doing it all in a week.

5. ORGCon was huge, completely selling out both days at the UK’s only digital rights conference. We had really positive feedback and enjoyed hearing lots of new voices, and getting to know you.

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to fear panel

6. We hired our first legal director and she’s been amazing! Elizabeth’s helped us do exciting new things like take part in several legal interventions, including a judicial review of DRIP.

7.  Thanks to our new legal work and persistent campaigning in challenging the secrecy of website bans, blocking orders are now more transparent.  So far, BT, Sky and Virgin are all providing more information about the blocks.

8. We worked with a huge range of organisations this year, forming coalitions and partnerships with World Development Movement, Liberty, Amnesty and EFF on issues from TTIP to surveillance, making our collective campaigns all the stronger.

9. The Don’t Spy on Us coalition was launched and working as a group has helped us spread the message about mass surveillance. With 15 organisations signed on, over 500 MPs received at least one email about Don’t Spy on Us.

10. Thanks to hiring PamElizabeth and Richard and our brilliant team, we had great press coverage all year round and have been able to get our message out to a wider audience.

It's been a brilliant year and we couldn't have done it without our supporters, people like you taking action and spreading the word.

The challenges just keep coming though. As we look to 2015, and the general election coming up we have to keep fighting to ensure that everyone’s rights are defended and promoted.

Can you join us by giving just £5 a month to make 2015 a better year for our rights?

We hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

With many thanks from,

Ruth and all the team at Open Rights Group

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December 08, 2014 | Lydia Snodin

ORGCon Day 2 - Learning How To Campaign

What happened on the second day of our annual conference? Read about our activism and training day.

The second day of our annual conference was a series of interactive training sessions to share information on how to campaign, plus an all-day hack space. If you missed it, read our blog about the first day.

What happened at ORGCon Day 2?

ORG has a fantastic community of supporters, who are genuinely involved in our work. This helps us to be more effective in our campaigns and stay focused on the people whose rights we are protecting. The aim of Day 2 was to bring our members and supporters together and talk about how they can get more directly involved with our campaigns.

We opened with two inspirational and informative stories of successful campaigns. Johnny Chatterton, co-founder of Campaign Bootcamp, talked about community-based activism changing national policies in the Save Our Forests campaign with 38 Degrees. Their actions helped stop the government sell-off the UK’s forests. Read more about how that happened.

Then Mike Harris, Campaign Director for Don't Spy On Us, described how the Libel Reform campaign led towards the passing of the Defamation Act in 2013, which helps protect authors and bloggers from being sued for libel. Read more about it. It was interesting to hear about the big setbacks that they both overcame – especially given some of the big challenges we face at the minute.

After this we moved on to a series of interactive training sessions: running a campaign group in your area, talking to your MPs and MEPs and securing media coverage. Our session on running a Local Group was particularly successful.

Local groups are our campaign groups across the UK. ORG members and supporters set them up, run them and organise events around digital rights topics with support from our Local Groups Co-ordinator. Digital rights affect people beyond London and Westminster and we are really committed to making sure that we are a grassroots organisation for everyone in the UK. In the session, we talked about how we can help our members organise activities that reflect that.

ORG will be organising a series of public debates with candidates from every political party across the UK and need your help to hold one where you live. We discussed the opportunities in different regions to make mass surveillance an issue politicians care about in the run-up to the general election, through helping organise these and making them a success. 

In the afternoon we held sessions to generate ideas for three of our campaigns: copyright reform, TTIP and mass surveillance. It was highlighted in the 'Don’t Spy On Us’ session that we should aim to get manifesto promises from candidates and MPs on surveillance issues. Learn more about DSOU.


Throughout the day we had a room set aside for all those interested in building technical tools and projects together (the 'hackspace'). They came up with all sorts of interesting projects which you can still get involved in if you like to code for a hobby. So what did they do?

  • Made a start on some Firefox and Chrome extensions for the Blocked project, allowing people to find out which networks a site they are visiting is blocked on. The code for Firefox and Chrome is available on Github.   
  • Started on a program which parses your public utterances and then tries to frame them in an embarrassing and damning fashion, thus demonstrating that algorithmic content-searching can harm you even if you have nothing to hide!
    "Give me six tweets by the most virtuous person and we will find within them something with which to hang them..."

How can you campaign with us?

Even if you didn't come to ORGCon Day 2, you can still support our campaigns in a number of ways. Please consider becoming a member.

You can also join or start your own local group where you can meet other ORG supporters who care about digital rights. Find out more about this, as well as other ways to get involved.

Read about ORGCon Day 1 and catch up on everything else that happened here.

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December 05, 2014 | Elizabeth Knight

Court ruling paves the way for European Court of Human Rights to consider “Privacy not PRISM” case

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) gave its judgment today in a major surveillance case brought by Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International. Disappointingly, the IPT ruled against the NGOs and accepted the security services’ position that they may in principle carry out mass surveillance of all fibre optic cables entering or leaving the UK and that vast intelligence sharing with the NSA does not contravene the right to privacy because of the existence of secret policies.

The decision should enable the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to proceed with hearing the “Privacy not PRISM” case brought by ORG and others. It also means that Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International may join us in the ECtHR.

The NGOs challenged the government’s surveillance practices on the grounds that it breached our rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Read Privacy International’s summary of the judgment here.

It is a disappointing decision, but not a surprising one. ORG and the other human rights groups have long argued that the IPT is unable to provide an adequate remedy. It is able to hold secret hearings (as part of the hearing in this case was) without telling the claimant what happened at those hearings. There is no right of appeal from a decision of the IPT. In this case the government refused to divert from its “neither confirm nor deny” policy regarding the existence of its surveillance programmes, which meant the case had to consider hypotheticals.

ORG, Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Article 19 and Constanze Kurz have a case in the ECtHR that challenges the government’s surveillance practices on very similar grounds. Our “Privacy not PRISM” case questions the human rights compliance of GCHQ’s TEMPORA programme, carried out under s.8(4) Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the use of information obtained from the NSA’s PRISM programme. The case has been given a priority status by the ECtHR but is currently on hold pending today’s decision by the IPT.

The IPT case has forced the government to disclose previously secret polices, reveal its overly broad definition of “external communications” and admit that it can obtain communications from the NSA without a warrant. These disclosures will assist all of the rights groups' arguments in the ECtHR.

The decision means that the adjournment of our case is likely to be lifted soon. How soon this happens will depend on whether the claimants in the IPT decide to apply to the ECtHR and whether the court allows them to join our case. Privacy International has already indicated that it intends to complain to the ECtHR.

We await the decision of the ECtHR as to when it will re-start our case and begin its scrutiny of the government’s surveillance practices. All parties will now look to the ECtHR to defend our human rights where the IPT has failed to do so.

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December 05, 2014 | Jim Killock

Website blocking orders made more transparent

Thanks to ORG, block notices are now telling you more about the reasons why websites are blocked, explaining that court order can be challenged.

So far, BT, Sky and Virgin are providing more information about the blocks, stating that:

you have the right to apply to the High Court to vary or discharge the Orders below if you are affected by the blocks which have been imposed. Any application must be made to the High Court directly and must (i) clearly indicate your identity and status as an applicant; (ii) be supported by evidence setting out and justifying the grounds of the application, and (iii) be notified to all parties 10 days in advance.

This is a great step forward, and has taken place because of ORG’s intervention in the Cartier trademark blocking case. Judge Arnold took our points about transparency and safeguards against abuse very seriously, and asked for some basic steps to be made to make it clear to website users that they can challenge court orders if they believe that the blocks are incorrect.

However, it isn’t quite enough information to be truly useful. Websites of course change in their nature, and mistakes can be made. It’s important that blocks can be changed, and users can make the holders of court orders aware of problems.

Let’s take a concrete example today. Filestube has changed its service so it is no longer linking to infringing content. However, it is still being blocked by UK ISPs. Who does a user complain to? 

A similar incident occurred with, which was blocked, but is no longer, as it is not serving the original infringing website content. (The court order lasts indefinitely, however, so it could be reimposed at any time.) 

In theory you could try to go to court if you wanted a block lifted. However, the information pages are missing most of the important information, such as court references, that would allow the user to obtain the order, any judgment, and then work out arguments to challenge the order. 

The simplest course of action would be to enable Internet users to contact the parties who obtained the order, and alert them to the change, so they could make their own decision to tell the ISPs to lift the block.

This information needs to be fully stated on the information pages. Currently, the ISPs say “members of the BPI” obtained the order. That is not enough information to make a complaint about a mistake, because it is unclear who exactly holds the court order.

When the legal music website PromoBay was launched by Pirate Bay collaborators, it was blocked, because the domain had been pointing to the Pirate Bay. Users were unsure who to complain to, and asked the ISPs to lift the block. The ISPs pointed out that the BPI on behalf of music and film companies were responsible for maintaining the list of domains and IP addresses hosting the Pirate Bay. According to the orders, it is the claimant who must tell the ISP which domains and IP addresses must be blocked.

It would be very useful for the notices to link to the court orders and judgments. Getting hold of an order is the first step to making a legal challenge. Many of the judgments are available on Bailii, both as digital scans and text; the orders are available on This project, run by ORG, has catalogued most of the court orders, precisely with the aim of making this information public.

There is therefore no reason for the blocking notices not to link to the orders or judgments, or making their own copies available.

These are quite simple changes which we believe the ISPs can easily make themselves. In summary, the pages need to provide:

  • Court references, so copies of orders can be easily obtained
  • The name of parties who hold the order and can vary it
  • Links to the judgments and orders, especially as these are already in the public domain

We are writing to ISPs today to ask them to make these modest but important changes.


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December 02, 2014 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

ORGCon2014: In review

We take a look at what happened at ORGCon2014, our national conference on digital rights.

Thank you so much for coming to ORGCon2014, we hope you had a brilliant time, and enjoyed learning and meeting with the digital rights community. It was really lovely to meet so many of our supporters there.

Image of MP debate session at ORGCon

What happened?
(Download the pdf programme here.)

On 15th - 16th November, we ran our national conference: ORGCon2014. We tried something new this time, running it over two days. Saturday was a packed day of talks and panels on digital issues from a brilliant group of speakers, and then on Sunday we held a smaller day of activism with workshops on campaigning, and a continuous hack stream with some amazing inventions built on the day (more on that to come).

Held at the KCL campus, our first day had the highest ever ORGCon attendance, with over 400 people coming through the doors.

Our opening talk was ORG founder and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow. An activist who has given a great deal of his time and energy to digital rights campaigning, Cory led with a fascinating and funny talk about DRM, the content locks put on our music and ebooks. He spoke about the key themes of his new book Information doesn't want to be free, developing the point: "Anytime someone puts a lock on a piece of your work, without giving you the key, it's not for your benefit".

Cory giving Information Doesn't Want to Be Free talk

It’s been a challenging year as post-Snowden revelations, the Government continues to erode our privacy in, as Don't Spy on Us Campaign Director Mike Harris put it last week, ‘bite-size chunks’.

At ORGCon we responded by sharing the real effects of the surveillance state. In 'Surveillance, whistle-blowing and the media' and 'Nothing to Hide, Nothing to fear,' Journalists and campaigners from various walks of life spoke to us about how surveillance chills our free speech, and changes our behaviour. There were also sessions on ORG's ongoing legal challenges and also the brilliant victory of Digital Rights Ireland in winning their case against data retention at the Court of Justice of the European Union.

We then put those issues to our guest politians: Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat MP, Claude Moraes Labour MEP and Natalie Bennett, Green Party Leader. We asked them how we can get politicians to talk about digital rights, and where their parties stand on these issues.

Natalie Bennett, spoke about digital rights and freedoms as just new areas for rights and freedoms to be invoked. In response to how we can get more politicians talking about these issues she said that we need more education.

Claude Moraes MEP, Chair of LIBE, spoke about balancing privacy vs security, and stated that he was in favour of producing a 'digital bill of rights.' Julian Huppert MP, Lib Dem Home Affairs, focused on searching for more cross-party agreement. He argued that a many of the problems with talking about online privacy stem from MPs not understanding technology, "A lot just don't get it [digital issues] so take very simplistic views". He encouraged the audience to vote for people who are on-side with digital rights regardless of party. We will be talking to more MPs about their stance on digital rights in the new year with voting debates/hustings held across the country.

More catch-ups

Review: There’s a set of brilliant write-ups of the event from ORG Board Director Owen Blacker, who managed to capture several of the sessions with in-depth coverage, and I didn't want to repeat him here. Read them all at:

And at VPN Compare you can read Christopher Seward's review of the day.

Photos: Our photographer, Joseph Kesisoglou, took some great pictures which we've uploaded to our Flickr album, with more on their way. If you have other photos on the site, please add them to the orgcon tag (all the pictures up so far a CC-BY-SA so feel free to use them in your blogs.)

Videos: Video recordings of the sessions will be up soon, but are still in the process of being edited.

Your blog: If you have written a blog or report on ORGCon we would love to share it and hear your thoughts, so please let us know in the comments. If you also have any specific feedback on orgcon, please email

Feedback: If you haven't sent back your feedback form (the inside back of your programme) please do so. We want to know how to make next year's even better!   


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November 26, 2014 | Elizabeth Knight

Lee Rigby murder should not be used as excuse for an increase in state power

Yesterday, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) issued its report into the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Despite cataloguing a number of failures, the report claims that the security services couldn’t have prevented Lee Rigby’s killing, while appearing to claim that Facebook could have.

The report showed that Rigby’s killers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale had appeared in seven different investigations by the security services and there were “errors in these operations, where processes were not followed, decisions not recorded, or delays encountered”.

Despite this finding, the ISC reserved its strongest criticism not for the intelligence services, but for overseas communications service providers. The committee referred to an online exchange between Adebowale and an extremist overseas, (discovered after the killing) in which Adebowale expressed his intent to murder a soldier. The committee concluded: 

“What is clear is that the one party which could have made a difference was the company on whose system the exchange took place. However, this company does not regard themselves as under any obligation to ensure that they identify such threats, or to report them to the authorities. We find this unacceptable: however unintentionally, they are providing a safe haven for terrorists.”

It is shocking and unreasonable to suggest that the company (un-named in the report but now named as Facebook) is responsible for any failure to prevent the murder. The suggestion appears to be that the company should have been trawling through the content of the communications of all of its users on a blanket basis on the off chance that one of them may be sending messages about terrorism. The ISC laments the fact that “none of the major US companies we approached proactively monitor and review suspicious content on their systems”. 

There are two suggestions: one is blanket trawling that would represent a hugely disproportionate interference with the right to privacy of all of the company’s users. It would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech online if individuals are unable to trust service providers not to snoop on their communications. It may also be contrary to the companies’ terms of service. 

ISC member Hazel Blears said yesterday that companies already proactively search and report illegal child abuse images and therefore by extension should be able to expand this to ‘terrorist content’. But it is not so straightforward. The former involves using hashes to tag illegal images, the latter would involve searching for keywords (killing? beheading?) and then making a decision about whether they have been written by someone who is a credible terrorist threat.

Facebook is right to regard itself as not being under any obligation to pro-actively identify this type of communication and report them to GCHQ. To place communications providers under such obligation would be to render them an arm of a surveillance state. 

A more reasonable approach could be to identify individuals that may be of interest to the security agencies - for example people who have drawn themselves to the attention of Facebook because they have posted extremist content, which has led to their accounts being suspended.

There are also clear legal mechanisms in place by which the security services can access the content of communications held by overseas companies. The first is by using a targeted warrant signed by the secretary of state under section 8(1) Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The ISC appears to have accepted at face value the government’s claims that this method is ineffective because overseas service providers do not comply. In fact, just because overseas service providers may say they do not regard themselves as bound by UK does not mean they do not cooperate with UK requests. Their transparency reports suggest otherwise. For example, between January and June 2014 Facebook supplied data for 71.68% of requests from the UK government. The ISC’s statement that if MI5 had sought information under a warrant the company might not have responded is highly speculative. 

If the government is unable to access communications using a warrant, the appropriate mechanism to use is the established Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between the UK and the US. The ISC suggests that the government believes using MLAT to be ineffective as it is too slow, does not apply to intelligence investigations and involves scrutiny of sensitive information by a US court. These are not insurmountable objections. Reform of the MLAT procedure should be a priority. 

Instead, the government is trying to pressure service providers to comply with its demands outside of any transparent legal process. Unregulated cooperation damages the rule of law. And importantly, if US companies have to comply with ad hoc requests from the British government surely they should also agree to demands for access to customer communications from the Russian and Chinese governments.

It is also notable that GCHQ’s vast TEMPORA programme, which allows the mass collection of external communications passing along fibre-optic cables between the UK and the US, does not appear to have helped them identify the communication. ORG is disputing the legality of the programme before the ECtHR. This is evidence that mass surveillance (as opposed to targeted surveillance) is ineffective as well as breaching our fundamental human rights. 

The findings of the committee accord conveniently with the recent rhetoric of Theresa May and GCHQ’s Robert Hannigan, who want to increase surveillance powers and bully Internet companies into agreeing to their demands.  The committee appears to have accepted this narrative unquestioningly. In addition, the decision to publish the the Counter-Terrorism Bill the day after the ISC report has been criticised by ISC members themselves.

It’s going to be very unlikely that people who are plotting terrorist attacks will be discussing them on Facebook, particularly now that we have had a public debate about this. Even so, this horrific murder should not be used as a political tool to pressure Internet companies to do what GCHQ wants.

This article was originally published in The Drum.

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