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The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) building in Cheltenham, Gloucestireshire. (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/flickr/cc)

Privacy Advocates Decry UK Parliament Mass Surveillance Report

'This just confirms that the ISC lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the agencies to account,' says civil liberties group

Nadia Prupis

Privacy and civil liberties advocates are slamming the findings of a U.K. commission's 18-month investigation into the government's mass surveillance programs, released Thursday.

The report by the U.K. Parliament's Intelligence and Security Commission (ISC), launched as a response to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations in 2013, found that the government's spying operations need a complete overhaul, but also determined that the Government Communications Headquarters's (GCHQ) existing programs do not break any laws and that bulk data collection does not impinge on the right to privacy."We have serious concerns about the resulting lack of transparency, which is not in the public interest."
—Intelligence and Surveillance Committee

"[T]he U.K.'s intelligence and security Agencies do not seek to circumvent the law—including the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998, which governs everything that the Agencies do," the report (pdf) stated. "However, that legal framework has developed piecemeal, and is unnecessarily complicated. We have serious concerns about the resulting lack of transparency, which is not in the public interest."

According to U.K.-based digital rights nonprofit Privacy International, the long-awaited report "should trouble every single person who uses a computer or mobile phone."

"Far from allaying the public's concerns... [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 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," the group stated.

Jim Killock, who heads the civil liberties organization Open Rights Group, stated, "The ISC's report 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 This report fails to address any of the key questions apart from the need to reform our out-of-date surveillance laws."

In a blog post, ORG campaigner Ed Paton-Williams also posits that the GCHQ did not have to circumvent any laws to conduct its surveillance sweeps because the laws themselves are weak, as revealed by the Snowden documents.

"This just confirms that the ISC lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the agencies to account," Killock added.

The ISC report contradicts other recent developments on this issue. In February, the U.K.'s most secretive court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, found the GCHQ violated Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights by accessing NSA information without sufficient oversight.

The IPT ruling also came soon after a Guardian analysis of the Snowden documents discovered that British intelligence agencies spied on communications between journalists at U.K. and U.S. outlets.

Shortly thereafter, the U.K. government admitted that it had also spied on communications between human rights lawyers and their clients, particularly those who were suing British intelligence agencies for their roles in rendering and torturing Libyan dissidents.

However, ISC's report claimed that GCHQ's large-scale surveillance methods "cannot... realistically be considered blanket interception," and that intercepted emails go through "several stages of targeting, filtering and searching so that they are believed to be the ones of the very highest intelligence value." "This just confirms that the ISC lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the agencies to account."
—Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

Nonetheless, ISC said, "a more fundamental review" of the GCHQ's legal framework for mass surveillance is overdue and in need of reform.

"We consider that the communications of UK nationals abroad should receive the same level of protection under the law irrespective of where the person is located," the report stated. "The interception and communication of data should be authorized through an individual warrant signed by a secretary of state."

In addition, these programs must be more transparent to Ministers of Parliament to ensure that the searches being conducted are within the boundaries of human rights law. As of now, the report found, "neither Ministers nor the [Intelligence and Security] Commissioners have any significant visibility of these issues."

As Privacy International explains, "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."

For its part, ORG published an "alternative" investigation into the GCHQ's activities, with its own recommendations for reform.

"The consequences of GCHQ's activities have the potential to harm society, the economy and our foreign standing," ORG said. "These have not been fully explored by Parliament." GCHQ's surveillance programs "affect ordinary people," ORG added, "not just those suspected of threatening national security."

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