Prism scandal: Agency to reveal US links 'shortly' after claims that thousands of Britons may have been spied on by GCHQ

Disclosure triggers civil liberties storm as the information-sharing agreement had not been made known to Parliament or the public as accusations raise ethical and legal concerns over direct access to 'millions' of web users

A report by GCHQ to Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee on the listening agency's links to a secret US spy programme is due shortly.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will receive a report on claims that it received material through the secret Prism scheme "very shortly", according to chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

"The ISC is aware of the allegations surrounding data obtained by GCHQ via the US Prism programme," Sir Malcolm said.

"The ISC will be receiving a full report from GCHQ very shortly and will decide what further action needs to be taken as soon as it receives that information."

This development came after allegations that thousands of Britons could have been spied on by GCHQ under a “chilling” link to a secret American operation covertly collecting data from the world’s largest internet companies.

David Cameron and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, faces cross-party demands to spell out details of links between the electronic eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham and the previously-unknown Prism programme operated by the National Security Agency (NSA).

The disclosure triggered a civil liberties storm as the information-sharing agreement had not been made known to Parliament or the public.

Ms May, who is determined to revive her own “snoopers’ charter” plans to require telecoms companies to collect data about people’s internet habits, will be confronted by MPs over the claims in the Commons on Monday.

Under Prism, American agents were able to glean data, including the contents of emails and web-chats, direct from the servers of major providers including Facebook, Google and Yahoo.

It emerged that some of the information had been passed to GCHQ, raising fears that the agency had been sidestepping the usual legal process for requesting intelligence material about UK nationals. The agency insists it operates within a “strict legal and policy framework”.

According to documents, GCHQ received 197 intelligence reports through the Prism system in the 12 months to May 2012, a rise of 137 per cent on the previous year.

Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said he was writing to Ms May to demand an explanation.

He said: “I am astonished by these revelations which could involve the data of thousands of Britons. The most chilling aspect is that ordinary American citizens and potentially British citizens too were apparently unaware that their phone and online interactions could be watched. This seems to be the snooper's charter by the back door.”

The existence of the Prism programme was revealed by the Washington Post and the Guardian, which obtained a copy of a presentation to NSA agents on the extent of its reach.

Further classified documents released yesterday pointed to the British link, noting that “special programmes exist for GCHQ for focused Prism processing”, suggesting the agency may have been making requests for specific information.

A GCHQ spokesman said: “Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.”

A Government spokesman said he would “neither confirm nor deny” the claims about GCHQ and refused to disclose whether the subject was being discussed with the US authorities.

However, the senior Conservative MP, David Davis, said it was difficult to reconcile GCHQ’s statement that it was subject to proper scrutiny with Parliament’s ignorance of the programme.

He said: “In the absence of parliamentary knowledge approval by a secretary of state is a process of authorisation, not a process of holding to account. Since nobody knew it was happening at all there is no possibility of complaint.”

The Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert said he would be tabling a series of parliamentary questions about the GCHQ revelations on Monday and would be calling for a Commons statement from Ms May.

He said: "We have to understand exactly what information they have had and what the safeguards are. It's deeply, deeply alarming.”

The controversy has added to the pressure on Nick Clegg from Liberal Democrats not to allow Ms May to revive the “snooper’s charter” after the Woolwich terrorist attack. Gareth Epps, co-chair the Social Liberal Forum, said: “Instead of Theresa May forcing through expensive and intrusive legislation, there should be statement by the Government on the purpose and scope of data harvesting of British citizens under Prism.”

Concerns about the disclosures were also raised by the Information Commissioner’s Office. A spokesman said: “There are real issues about the extent to which US law enforcement agencies can access personal data of UK and other European citizens. Aspects of US law under which companies can be compelled to provide information to US agencies potentially conflict with European data protection law, including the UK’s own Data Protection Act.”

Nick Pickles of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch said questions needed to be asked at the "highest levels" to establish whether British citizens had had their privacy breached "without adherence to the proper legal process or any suspicion of wrongdoing".

James Blessing, chief technology officer of ISP Keycom, and a council member of the Internet Service Providers’ Association, described the leaked document describing the NSA programme as “really quite scary”.

He said: “If, as this document claims, the NSA has direct access to those servers – unfettered, unbroken access – the NSA can see anything anyone in the UK is doing without any safeguards or controls. It’s been shown that if people have unfettered access they have a propensity to go and look, they can’t help themselves and they will go and find things.”

Whitehall sources said established channels had long been used by GCHQ to request information from the US. However, that the UK service had no direct access to Prism or any similar intelligence gathering systems of the NSA. There were no UK personnel present even as part of any exchange programme when the system may have been used, they claimed.

According to US sources what is called telephone “metadata” gathered from the mobile telephone records of customers of Verizon by the NSA was almost certainly been passed on to GCHQ, although what was released remained at the discretion of the Americans.

Further reading:

Prism and the US internet giants: The relationship and the numbers
Obama defends NSA and FBI mining private data
Q&A: What is Prism, is it legal and what data can it obtain?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own