UK Parliament’s Intelligence Committee says reform needed after Snowden revelations

Today’s report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) into the Snowden revelations has admitted for the first time that wholesale reform of the law covering GCHQ and the intelligence agencies is needed after May’s general election.

The ISC’s report, released this morning, also called for increased transparency over how the intelligence agencies operate and the amount of surveillance undertaken, which was welcomed by campaigners.

However, some of the report’s key findings are questionable. The report states that GCHQ’s bulk interception systems "cannot therefore realistically be considered blanket interception.” The description of the surveillance undertaken by GCHQ, in significant technical detail, is in fact a mass surveillance system. How else can the filtering of billions of communications and the searching through of those communications with tens of thousands of selectors, be described?

The ISC claimed:
The UK’s intelligence and security Agencies do not seek to circumvent the law

Yet in only February of this year, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that GCHQ had acted illegally in the scale of its intelligence sharing with the NSA after a successful case taken by Privacy International, Bytes for All, Liberty, and Amnesty International.

The report’s recommendations on the bulk collection of data may fail to meet the UK’s international human rights obligations. This will be tested in a forthcoming case at the European Court of Human Rights taken by Big Brother Watch, English PEN and Open Rights Group.

The report also argues that Ministers, not the independent judiciary, are best placed to sign off on warrants that allow access to content data, or even subject entire telecoms operators (if abroad) unless surveillance. This controversial position that places politicians in the position of judge and jury over the scale of surveillance has been criticised by the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.

The ISC report also glosses over some pretty major details. The small percentage of internet cables subject to GCHQ surveillance allow the agency access to billions of communications every single day.

The report, commissioned after Edward Snowden’s revelations in June 2013, will be followed by two further independent inquiries into the legality and scale of the intelligence agencies use of internet data by the independent review of terrorism legislation David Anderson QC and RUSI. It is expected these two reports will be published after the general election.

The response of Don’t Spy On Us coalition members:

Executive Director, Jim Killock said:

“The ISC's report should have apologised to the nation for their failure to inform Parliament about how far GCHQ’s powers have grown. This report fails to address any of the key questions apart from the need to reform our out-of-date surveillance laws. This just confirms that the ISC lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the agencies to account."

Today, the Open Rights Group published a heavyweight 110 page dissection of GCHQ’s mass surveillance programmes with the NSA detailing the threats and risks these programmes create.

Thomas Hughes, the Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 said:

“It is ludicrous that the ISC have claimed that the 'bulk collection' of communication data does not amount to mass surveillance. We know that whole populations are subject to scrutiny of their most private conversations and online activities.  It’s time to stop repeating the same tired argument that the mass collection of communications is necessary so you can find ‘the needle in the haystack'. It's disproportionate to target a whole population without reasonable suspicion.”

Carly Nyst, Legal Director of Privacy International, said:

“The UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee's report provides a long-awaited official confirmation that the British government is engaging in mass surveillance of communications. Far from allaying the public's concerns, the ISC's report should trouble every single person who uses a computer or mobile phone: it describes in great detail how the security services are intercepting billions of communications each day and interrogating those communications against thousands of selection fields. The ISC has attempted to mask the reality of its admissions by describing GCHQ's actions as "bulk interception". However, no amount of technical and legal jargon can obscure the fact that this is a parliamentary committee, in a democratic country, telling its citizens that they are living in a surveillance state and that all is well.”

Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN said:

‘We welcome the call for new legislation and  greater transparency. However the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) recommendations are ultimately undermined by its support for the intelligence services’ mass collection of data and its rejection of independent judicial oversight. There remains a glaring gap between the parliamentary committee’s conclusions and the response from the international community at the highest level. The UK intelligence services’ secret and indiscriminate mass surveillance programme has been widely condemned as a serious  erosion of our right to privacy and to freedom of expression. It’s essential that a reformed legal framework addresses these concerns’.

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Comments (1)

  1. MN:
    Mar 12, 2015 at 06:17 PM

    I havent done anything wrong. I (the individual) have the right to know any and all data / meta data the State, its agencies, its partners have collected about me. I want to know what, why and and when the state collected this information. I want a simple, easy to access, easy to understand mechanism for this. This is the contract between the State and the Individual and I want to know NOW.