The long-awaited Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee report into privacy and security, published this morning, has dismissed suggestions that GCHQ and other parts of the UK’s intelligence services circumvent the law.
The claims followed the leak of US National Security Agency (NSA) material by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which seemed to indicate that the UK’s security services were engaged in mass data collection and surveillance.
“The [security] Agencies do not have the legal authority, the resources, the technical capability, or the desire to intercept every communication of British citizens, or of the internet as a whole: GCHQ are not reading the emails of everyone in the UK,” says the report.
It continues: “GCHQ’s bulk interception systems operate on a very small percentage of the bearers that make up the internet. We are satisfied that they apply levels of filtering and selection such that only a certain amount of the material on those bearers is collected. Further targeted searches ensure that only those items believed to be of the highest intelligence value are ever presented for analysts to examine: therefore only a tiny fraction of those collected are ever seen by human eyes.”
It added that the current legal framework has led to widespread confusion, yet also asserted “we have established that bulk interception cannot be used to target the communications of an individual in the UK without a specific authorisation naming that individual, signed by a Secretary of State”.
The report has therefore called for the security services to be put under clearer legislation to overcome what it describes as an “unnecessarily complicated” legal framework.
“Our key recommendation therefore is that the current legal framework be replaced by a new Act of Parliament governing the intelligence and security Agencies. This must clearly set out the intrusive powers available to the Agencies, the purposes for which they may use them, and the authorisation required before they may do so,” the report says.
Campaign group Privacy International accused the committee of whitewashing the extent of GCHQ’s mass surveillance and data gathering operations.
In a statement it said: “Far from allaying the public’s concerns, the Intelligence and Security Committee’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.”
It called for the new legal framework proposed by the Committee to provide genuine restraints on the power of GCHQ and the security services, and for greater judicial oversight in their surveillance and data-gathering activities.
Is the report accurate or is it a whitewash? Comment below.