UK intelligence agencies cleared of breaking surveillance laws

UK’s security and intelligence agencies do not seek to bypass existing surveillance laws, but a tighter legislative framework is needed to protect privacy, a cross-party committee said in a landmark report.

The 18-month inquiry by the intelligence and security committee of parliament (ISC) found that the existing laws are not being broken by the agencies and insisted that GCHQ’s bulk interception does not amount to bulk surveillance. The inquiry was prompted by the revelations from former CIA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.

However, the legal framework governing the intrusive capabilities of intelligence agencies is unnecessarily complicated and – crucially – lacks transparency, it said, and it called for the current legislation to be replaced by a new, single act of parliament.

Hazel Blears, retired Labour MP and one of the nine parliamentarians on the committee, said the 149 page report is a recommendation and “there is no draft bill”, but urged all parties to see it.

A new legal framework should for the first time explicitly set out surveillance capabilities, detailing the authorisation procedures, privacy constraints, transparency requirements, targeting criteria, sharing arrangements, oversight, and other safeguards.

As part of the recommendations, the report said that misuse of GCHQ’s interception capabilities should become a criminal offence after it was revealed a GCHQ staffer was dismissed for inappropriately accessing peoples’ personal information held in bulk datasets.

The committee concluded that there was no bulk surveillance and gave a lengthy defence on it: “We have established that bulk interception cannot be used to search for and examine the communications of an individual in the UK unless GCHQ first obtain a specific authorisation naming that individual, signed by a secretary of state.”

It adds: “GCHQ requires access to internet traffic through bulk interception primarily in order to uncover threats - whether that might be cyber-criminals, nuclear weapons proliferators or Isil terrorists.

“They need to find patterns and associations, in order to generate initial leads. This is an essential first step before the agencies can then investigate those leads through targeted interception.”

When the committee was asked if the agencies’ behaviour is impeccable by the press this morning, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former chair of the committee until he resigned recently following cash for access allegations, said this was not a general inquiry into the conduct of the agencies.

“This was a specific report into whether they were involved in mass surveillance. The ISC found that was not true,” Rifkind said.

In an arguably controversial move, the committed redacted all the figures about how much information is looked by GCHQ and said it had “to balance the need for transparency with national security considerations.”

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