The oversight of Britain’s snooping laws used by spying agencies needs a complete overhaul following the Edward Snowden leaks, an influential report by MPs has said.
A lengthy inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee concluded that laws governing the activities of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are “unnecessarily complicated”, “lack transparency” and should be replaced with a single Act of Parliament.
It concluded that GCHQ conducts “bulk interception” of private communications every day, involving thousands of messages, but said the agencies did not carry out indiscriminate surveillance.
The report by MPs added that “only a tiny fraction of those collected are ever seen by human eyes”.
The committee recommends replacing the complex existing legal arrangements with a single law that can keep a check on spying agencies’ ability to snoop on private communications. The new law "must clearly set out the intrusive powers available to the Agencies, the purposes for which they may use them, and the authorisation required before they may do so".
The inquiry into privacy and security was launched 18 months ago after Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor, revealed details of bulk interception of private communications by GCHQ and its American counterpart, the National Security Agency.
Speaking on behalf of the Committee, Labour MP Hazel Blears said: "There is a legitimate public expectation of openness and transparency in today's society, and the security and intelligence agencies are not exempt from that.
"While we accept that they need to operate in secret if they are to be able to protect us from those who are plotting in secret to harm us, the Government must make every effort to ensure that information is placed in the public domain when it is safe to do so.
"This report is an important first step toward greater transparency.
"Nevertheless, there is more that could and should be done. This is essential to improve public understanding and retain confidence in the vital work of the intelligence and security Agencies."
However the long-awaited publication of the report was dismissed civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti.
"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 Liberty director said.
"The Committee calls this report a landmark for 'openness and transparency' - but how do we trust agencies who have acted unlawfully, hacked the world's largest sim card manufacturer and developed technologies capable of collecting our login details and passwords, manipulating our mobile devices and hacking our computers and webcams?
"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."
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, welcomed the report and said it provided a much more “thoughtful” solution than the coalition’s “sticking plaster legislation” that the government put forward last summer.
“Too often the Tories and the Liberal Democrats within the Government have tried to set up a caricatured argument between security on the one hand and liberty on the other. Yet most people know it’s vital to protect both in our democracy, and we need a thoughtful debate about how to get the detail right. That's what this report does.
“This important ISC Report now needs to be considered, alongside the independent review into RIPA to be published by David Anderson shortly, so we can update the legal framework to cope with fast changing technology.
“Sticking plaster legislation - as the government put forward last summer - just isn't good enough. We need a serious and sustainable framework that will command consent for years to come."Reuse content