A House of Commons debate has raised questions about the level of state surveillance

MP's told UK is sleepwalking into a surveillance state

Britain is sleepwalking into becoming a surveillance state as the capacity to collect and analyse data grows MPs were told.

Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert said there were serious questions to be asked about the extent and scale of intelligence agencies' activities, as he opened the packed Westminster Hall debate on the intelligence and the security services yesterday.

And he said the issues of privacy and security would "come to define the 21st century", in a debate co-sponsored by Tory Dominic Raab and Labour's Tom Watson.

Huppert said: "This has been a live discussion and understood in America and much of Europe, but MPs have so far been fairly muted and not had the chance to discuss it thoroughly.

"Acknowledging changes in the capacity of the state and companies to collect and analyse data grows massively, we are in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance of the scale which peacetime Britain has never seen before. It's not planned, it's not the actions of malevolent individuals, it's merely the natural trend of what will happen if nothing is done to stop it.

"It can be argued the definitions of war and peace are no longer the same and our enemies are faceless, splintered, and would attack our way of life if we give them an inch. That's an argument prime ministers and home secretaries have often put.

"But if we shape our laws solely in response to this fear, chipping away at our own liberty and our own privacy, then frankly they have already won."

Huppert said he was worried about the basic rights and liberties of citizens being eroded.

"There is a change; individual surveillance is one thing but the mass hoovering-up of information which is enabled by new technologies changes the system completely. It means suspicion no longer comes first ... in the new approach we are all suspects whose personal histories can be foraged through," he said.

"We have to ensure the laws and guidance that are available to the staff in our intelligence and security services are clear and we ourselves understand the framework we expect them to operate in.”

Huppert said nobody was seeking the details of precise intelligence-gathering techniques in the public domain, but added: "We do need to have the discussion of what is ok, what is not ok and where the line is drawn. What we know is not even the National Security Council was told of the scale and scope of surveillance on our own citizens."

And he concluded: "We need a pause. We need a proper and full investigation into powers already available to the intelligence and security services, and it has to be done competently and with an element of independence.”

Watson said telecoms firms should reveal whether they were willing accomplices or obliged by law to give intelligence agencies access to cables providing the back bone to the internet, referenced articles published by the Washington Post which said the NSA had broken into the main internet cables carrying data around the world.

“These telecoms companies, who are the backbone of this wonderful thing called the internet, that has allowed two decades of free expression and creativity to explode into the lives of our citizens, have been operating in the shadows, to allow our security services to tap all of it,” he said.

"The security services have clearly made the trade off that intelligence obtained is worth the invasion of privacy. They are judged on the quality of the intelligence they obtain and little else. But I want to know if the telecoms companies have voluntarily entered into this agreement or if they have been obliged to under UK or USA law."

But chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is asked with overseeing the work of the intelligence services, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said "mass surveillance" was a misleading term.

He told the debate: "The inference is all our emails are being examined or going to be examined by the agencies, by GCHQ, at their own choice and through their own methods. They totally seem either to misunderstand or not to refer to the reality of what happens as a result of modern technology.

"With modern computers that can digest vast amounts of emails or communications data, they are programmed by certain selectors, and emails believed to belong to a terrorist... the computers are programmed to go through millions and millions of communications information and discard all of them without looking at them, no human eye looks at them.

"Of the totality a computer might be processing, perhaps 0.01 per cent will have the selectors programmed to be looked for... even that tiny minority identified by the computers as being potentially relevant to terrorism; if GCHQ, or MI6 or MI5 want to look at the content, to read any of them, then they have to go to the Secretary of State to get permission.

"The idea of living in a mass surveillance society is a wonderful turn, a wonderful phrase, a wonderful allegation... but the reality is everyone in this room is not having their emails intercepted or read."

And a former intelligence worker-turned-MP Ben Wallace said large firms like Google and Facebook pose a greater risk to personal data than the security services as they are unregulated.

He said these businesses were harvesting data from individuals and selling it on to make billions of pounds yet, unlike the state, they were not subject to regulations to protect people.

Wallace, who worked in intelligence in Northern Ireland, said he would rather have the security services grooming his internet as democratic bodies were in place to oversee their work, but the Tory said he had yet to hear one criticism, fear or demand from fellow MPs to regulate the private sector.

"What I find interesting is I've not yet heard one criticism or fear or demand that we regulate the private sector. The big capitalist companies in America; the Googles, the Facebooks; harvest our data without your leave, sell it on to intermediaries on and on and on.

"They make millions, billions of pounds, avoid tax; I haven't yet heard anyone saying how they all keep their servers offshore to avoid tax; and that's the area that needs regulating and protection.

"I'm proud that our security services are regulated. I'd rather have the state than the private sector all over the world grooming through my internet capabilities because I know that we are first of all oversighted.”

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