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Overhaul Needed For UK Spying Programs

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Monday, August 10th, 2015


United Kingdom’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has cleared the country’s intelligence agencies of carrying out blanket surveillance or circumventing the law while carrying out their spying activities. The report published by ISC was the result of a lengthy inquiry that was initiated by the UK government in 2013 in response to the sensational leaks made by Edward Snowden. While the heavily redacted report has cleared GCHQ of any wrongdoing, it does recommend a drastic overhaul of the legal framework which surrounds the surveillance activities involved with UK Spying.

While the ISC has termed the surveillance activities carried out by the British intelligence agencies as lawful and proportionate, it has nevertheless warned that the provisions available under Security Service Act 1989 and Intelligence Services Act 1994 could be wrongly interpreted as providing unrestricted powers to the spy agencies. To counter this, the committee has recommended that the spying powers of the intelligence agencies should be spelled out in a clear and unambiguous way under a new law.

The report reassures the British public that UK’s spy agencies can carry out extended searches only after receiving an approval from the government. However, it also says that the agencies are using targeted techniques to read intercepted content without the approval of the ministers; something which needs to be addressed. Observing that MI5 provides detailed justification while forwarding its requests to the government, the committee has urged MI6 and GCHQ to follow the same approach. In addition, the report has recommended that the government should be allowed to reveal information about warrants that do not risk national security.

The report also states that the data interception activities carried out by GCHQ not only help in investigation of known threats but also in discovering new leads. ISC says that GCHQ targets a very small percentage of bearers (international fiber optic cables) that constitute the internet and its analysts open a very tiny percentage of the intercepted communications. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of data collection and interception since the actual figures are scrubbed from the report.

In the report, ISC also seems to back the surveillance procedures carried out by the spy agencies especially against the backdrop of terrorism. The committee says that while there are legitimate privacy concerns against bulk data interception, the individual right to privacy should not be allowed to let terrorists carry out their nefarious activities. ISC says that it is good that the intelligence agencies have bulk data interception ability but such powers need to be tightly controlled and should be subject to safeguards.

Through the report, ISC has also revealed how intelligence agencies deal with staff members who abuse their powers and access data in an inappropriate way. The report cites the example of one GCHQ employee who was dismissed for the misuse of GCHQ’s systems as well as several other individuals who were disciplined or dismissed from their positions. On the whole, the committee said, the number of staff members abusing their powers remains extremely small.


August 10, 2015
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