THE MUCH ANTICIPATED OFFICIAL government review into GCHQ bulk data collection has found that such activity is fine, and should not be considered mass surveillance. It also acknowledged that some legislative change is needed.
Yup. The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) has surprised us all by deciding that following "a comprehensive review of the full range of intrusive capabilities available to the UK intelligence Agencies", it is able to "present a landmark in terms of the openness and transparency surrounding the Agencies' work, and tell us that fears are unfounded.
The short version of this, presented to us by MP Hazel Blears, is that GCHQ operates within the law in a way that corresponds with legislation and a regime that is overly complicated and lacking in transparency.
"The internet has transformed the way we communicate and conduct our day - to - day lives. However this has led to a tension between the individual right to privacy and the collective right to security," said the right honourable Blears, who reminded us that it is the threat of terrorism that necessitates the ‘intrusive' work of the agencies.
"The security and intelligence Agencies have a crucial role protecting UK citizens from threats to their safety. The importance of this work is reflected in the fact that the Agencies have been given legal authority to use a range of intrusive powers which they use to generate leads, to discover threats, to identify those who are plotting in secret against the UK and to track those individuals," she added.
"However, in a democratic society those powers cannot be unconstrained: limits and safeguards are essential. The question we have considered is whether the intrusion is justified and whether the safeguards are sufficient."
The answer to that is yes. The ICS report, a long one, is pretty transparent, apart from the parts that are redacted and finds the government feeling pretty OK about what it gets up to, again.
It says that the activities that are carried out are carefully considered and that bulk collection is a necessary stage on the way to informed, proper targeted investigations.
"Given the extent of targeting and filtering involved, it is evident that while GCHQ's bulk interception capability may involve large numbers of emails, it does not equate to blanket surveillance, nor does it equate to indiscriminate surveillance," it explains.
"GCHQ is not collecting or reading everyone's emails: they do not have the legal authority, the resources, or the technical capability to do so. 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 specific authorisation."
Still, some change is needed and the ICS recommends movements in the direction of transparency, it adds that the report is a good part of this and recommended that the government make a real effort to be more open.
"There is a legitimate public expectation of openness and transparency in today's society," it added, "and the security and intelligence Agencies are not exempt from that".
Outside of government the responses are rather different. While the ICS has opted to treat its results to a 'no harm done' retelling, citizens rights groups are less forgiving.
Jim Killock, the executive director at the Open Rights Group, is particularly unimpressed with the results. He said that the ICS left a lot out of its report, and questioned the committees independence.
"The ISC's should have apologised to the nation for their failure to inform Parliament about how far GCHQ's powers have grown. This report fails to address any of the key questions apart from the need to reform our out-of-date surveillance laws," he said.
"This just confirms that the ISC lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the agencies to account."
The Open Rights Group supports the idea of legislative change, but one that meets the requirements of basic human rights.
Privacy International, a group that has taken on GCHQ and its practices on many fronts, said that the ISC report will not soothe anyone's worries. Rather it said, the report and its admissions should disturb citizens. While it welcomes the report it did so through gritted teeth.
"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," it said.
"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."
Privacy International hopes that any plans to redraw surveillance legislation look to restrain surveillance and keep the agencies in line.
"Today's report is official confirmation that the security services will seek to overstep any powers that are granted to them. Any new surveillance law should therefore seek to restrain, and not expand, the Government's powers," it added.
"Parliament must ensure that the law is fit for purpose, that all powers and actions are explicitly authorised by an independent judiciary, and properly overseen to audit use and address any abuse. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a similar situation years from now without the benefit of a future Edward Snowden to prompt officials to do their jobs."
The UK Pirate Party also hopes for a more open and fair legislative position. It recommended that when the agencies use their 'intrusive methods' it should be in a very transparent and legal framework.
Andy Halsall, Pirate Party Candidate for Sheffield Central, said: "Whilst I welcome this report, it's obvious that we need to continue to debate the role of mass surveillance and the boundaries between acceptable and prudent precautions and indiscriminate snooping."
"There are clearly still major issues around meta-data, targeted versus bulk intercept, and oversight. I don't accept that the bulk collection of communications of UK citizens isn't mass surveillance. Just because the communications being intercepted may not all be read, or that the services being used are located abroad should not remove the requirement for an individual warrant."
Liberty was perhaps the most damning of all, and had little praise for the 'landmark' report and its transparency.
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said: "The ISC has repeatedly shown itself as a simple mouthpiece for the spooks - so clueless and ineffective that it's only thanks to Edward Snowden that it had the slightest clue of the agencies' antics.
"The Committee calls this report a landmark for 'openness and transparency' - but how do we trust agencies who have acted unlawfully? No doubt it would be simpler if we went along with the spies' motto of ‘no scrutiny for us, no privacy for you' - but what an appalling deal for the British public." µ
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