ISC Report: UK Surveillance Laws Need Total Overhaul
A British parliamentary committee has issued a report concluding the legal framework regulating government surveillance is “unnecessarily complicated” and requires a total overhaul to remedy a lack of transparency.
The BBC reports the Intelligence and Security Committee report concludes no existing laws are being broken by UK surveillance agencies, but recommends enacting a single law to regulate government access to private communications.
The report insists the bulk collection of private data by government agencies is not ‘mass surveillance’ and does not pose a threat to individual privacy, although it does fault existing law for being overly complicated and in need of much greater transparency.
“What we’ve found is that the way in which the agencies use the capabilities they have is authorized, lawful, necessary and proportionate,” Hazel Blears, the ranking Labour party member of the ISC, is quoted in the Guardian.
“But what we’ve also found is there is a degree of confusion and lack of transparency about the way in which this is authorized in our legal system,” added Blears. “It is that lack of transparency that leads to people reaching the conclusion that there is blanket surveillance, indiscriminate surveillance.”
The ISC’s 18-month investigation was largely prompted by revelations from former US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. Among the myriad classified documents leaked by Snowden are files detailing how US and UK intelligence agencies spy on billions of electronic communications around the world, including those of friendly world leaders.
The ISC report reveals that Prime Minister David Cameron granted UK Intelligence Services Commissioner Mark Waller the power to monitor private communications and compile “bulk personal datasets” that can be examined without any legal oversight.
Although heavily censored, the report states that these datasets contain personal information about a wide range of people and vary in size from hundreds to millions of records. The committee notes that there are no legal restrictions on storage, sharing, or deletion of the datasets, and that spy agencies can access them without obtaining ministerial clearance.
Civil liberties advocates largely dismissed the ISC report as a work of government self-exoneration.
“The essence of the report is that there is woefully inadequate accountability and transparency in this legal framework,” American investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his series of Guardian articles which introduced the world to Snowden and his revelations, told BBC Newsnight.
“A British court said last month said that what GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters, the UK signals intelligence agency] is doing is illegal because of how secret it is, and it called for a major overhaul of the spying laws to fix these problems that we would have never know about if it weren’t for Edward Snowden,” Greenwald continued.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that the British government is saying, ‘We the British government did not break the law,'” he added, calling into question the ability of a parliamentary committee “that has been notorious for not doing its job and being a rubber stamp for what the intelligence community wants.”
“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,” London-based Privacy International said on its website.
“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,” the group said.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the rights group Liberty, told the BBC the ISC is “a simple mouthpiece for the spooks,” calling it “so clueless and ineffective that it’s only thanks to Edward Snowden that it had the slightest clue of the agencies’ antics.”