British spies 'ignored MPs' when carrying out mass surveillance of public’s internet activity

A former Labour cabinet minister says GCHQ’s Tempora programme was almost directly ruled out when Parliament rejected the proposed ‘snoopers’ charter’ earlier this year

British spies may be directly ignoring the wishes of MPs by using methods of mass surveillance which were ruled out by Parliament earlier this year, a former cabinet minister has warned.

The former Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown said there was an “uncanny” resemblance between proposals featured in the early sections of the draft communication data bill – referred to by its opponents as a “snoopers’ charter” – and the activities of GCHQ revealed by the Edward Snowden leaks.

Speaking to the Guardian, Mr Brown warned that the UK’s spies could be deliberately carrying out snooping under its Tempora programme despite the full knowledge it was rejected as an excessive invasion of privacy.

A current Labour MP, Mr Brown was among those who sat on the parliamentary committee which scrutinised the draft communications bill, which was ultimately thrown out because of Lib Dem objections. It would have given GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 greater powers to gather and save information about people’s internet use.

The Guardian revealed in July that the Tempora programme involves GCHQ to tap into cables under the Atlantic which carry internet traffic, allowing spies to monitor and store millions of phone calls, emails and searches online.

“The similarity between part one of the proposed data communications bill and the events Mr Snowden is describing as already taking place is uncanny,” Mr Brown said.

“It covers the same set of circumstances. The bill was trying to be permissive in that all material could be saved for a year. It now looks very much like this is what is happening anyway, with or without parliament's consent.”

Last night Julian Huppert, a Lib Dem MP who was also on the parliamentary committee dealing with the draft bill, told the Guardian questions needed to be asked about who knew about Tempora while the law was being proposed.

“Those of us on the committee were never told by any Home Office officials about the fact the data was already available,” Mr Huppert said.

He said that the Home Secretary Theresa May either misled the committee or did not know about Tempora – which would “raise real questions about her role”.

“We know the cabinet was not briefed,” Mr Huppert said. “We have no idea who was. Was it just the prime minister? Was it a handful of others? Who made the decision not to tell other people? This is incredibly alarming. I hope we will be able to see proper debate and parliamentary scrutiny of this issue. We know that the security services play a very important role but they should operate with public consent.”

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