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 today, also calls for increased transparency over the intelligence agencies operations, and the amount of surveillance undertaken.
However, some of the report’s key findings are questionable. The ISC claimed:
The UK’s intelligence and security Agencies do not seek to circumvent the law
This is problematic. In 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 the 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) under surveillance. This is a controversial position that places politicians in the position of judge and jury over the scale of surveillance. It is an approach that has been criticised by the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.
The ISC report also glosses over some 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.
Jo Glanville, Director, 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.
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, 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.
Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said:
This inquiry was established to provide the public with evidence based reassurances that their communications are not unlawfully or disproportionately being monitored. However, in many areas the report is a missed opportunity with key details having being redacted.
We welcome the key recommendation of placing the intelligence agencies surveillance operations under one piece of legislation, which should mean that we move away from the current confusing and outdated regime. However, it is critical that time for a public thorough and frank debate be given and that any legislation be well considered.
Concerns remain particularly in the area of judicial approval and with the revelation of bulk personal data sets which on the surface sound very much like an identity database, collating personal information on many if not all of us.
The report outlines a number of areas where the public should be told more about the intelligence agencies’ practices and their interpretation of the current surveillance law, including clarity on what constitutes an internal and external communication. The Government must publish these explanations quickly in order to move towards greater public clarity.