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New safeguards needed over surveillance, says report

by Josef Kafka

The long awaited report into mass surveillance on UK citizens has finally been made public, and while the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) says that bulk interception and collection of data does not break any existing laws, they have called for a ‘total overhaul’ of the legislation, and more transparency in the way the agencies conduct their business. The ISC – the watchdog set up to report on the methods being used by the intelligence agencies – also criticised civil liberty campaigners who, when consulted as part of the report, said that even if bulk interception of data prevented a UK terrorist attack, the practice was still wrong in principle. They said the views of Liberty, Justice, and Big Brother Watch in this instance, were unacceptable.

Snowden revelations

The ISC was set up some 18 months ago, amid widespread concerns over personal privacy, following revelations by Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor, that US intelligence agencies, as well as MI5, MI6, and GCHQ were bulk intercepting private phone calls, social media posts, emails, and internet activity in general. The practice, although not admitted as such, was generally justified as being in the interests of national security. Since Snowden started releasing NSA files in 2013, there’s been a steady stream of revelations about the extent of surveillance carried out by the intelligence services on a global scale. There’s been a growing sense that perhaps no telephone conversation, online browsing or messaging is private anymore, no matter where you happen to be. 

Blank cheque on surveillance?

The ISC report says that what has been going on, however, does not amount to a threat on individual privacy but that the existing legal framework is ‘unnecessarily complicated and almost impenetrable’. They acknowledged that the current laws could be seen as giving the various agencies a ‘blank cheque’ to conduct whatever activities they considered necessary. Perhaps the most significant revelation in the report, is the first official admission that the agencies have had the power and capability to amass personal records and form ‘bulk personal datasets’ free of any statutory oversight – that sounds very much like the aforementioned ‘blank cheque’! It also came out that a handful of UK spies had accessed private information inappropriately, and had misused their surveillance powers. This should be considered as a ‘criminal offence’ says the ISC. In fact, several individuals have already been sacked and, after the report was made public, David Cameron announced ‘a crackdown’ on how the use of datasets were being monitored.

Data from other sources

The ISC report is heavily censored in a section that discusses the datasets of millions of personal records and where they state that there is no legal constraint on retention, storage or destruction of these records, and the fact that the intelligence agencies don’t require government authorisation to access the records. The datasets were likened to a kind of telephone directory and that they only applied to ‘people of interest’ to the agencies. The report also shows that the bulk information was not always collected by the agencies themselves, but through both covert and overt channels, including some commercial organisations who gathered the data and passed it on to the intelligence agencies. Are these the commercial organisations that Snowden pointed the finger at, namely Facebook, Google, and others? At the press conference to announce the report, when senior Labour member Hazel Blears, was asked if the Snowden had done anything wrong, she said that the committee believed that “stealing classified information and releasing it across the world” was not helpful.

New act of parliament 

The inquiry does offer a defence of bulk gathering of data – one of Snowden’s main revelations –adding that the agencies don’t have the resources or the desire to examine all the data they amass. Although the report does not disclose what percentage of internet traffic is selected to be examined by analysts at GCHQ, they say that the chosen items will have “gone through several stages of target filtering and searching so they are believed to be the ones of the greatest intelligence value”. The main recommendation of the report is that the law governing the surveillance capabilities of the intelligence and security agencies be replaced by a new act of parliament, that sets out authorisation procedures, privacy constraints, targeting criteria, sharing of data arrangements, and other measures. 

So where does all this leave us in terms of assurances over individual privacy? Not much better off, according to the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, who described the ISC as a “mouthpiece for the spooks”, adding that it was only thanks to Snowden that they had the “slightest clue” about the antics of the various agencies. The ISC inquiry took 18 months to compile a report that some would have hoped would put an end to public fears over the level of surveillance going on, but in the intervening months, there have been new revelations with more likely to come in the days ahead – and no end in sight!

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