Security services: Power with responsibility

An operational realignment is called for in the light of what we now know about the extent of their reach

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The Independent Online

Security and intelligence agencies perhaps face greater challenges today than ever before. Sophisticated technology has become commonplace; the world nearly buckles under the weight of our digital communications. The activities of terrorists, criminals and other malign forces are difficult to spot, let alone monitor.

Yet bodies such as GCHQ are hardly mere victims of the electronic advance. Security chiefs like to talk about their desperate searches for needles in haystacks, but the fact is they have an impressive capacity to cut through a lot of chaff in order to find what they seek.

GCHQ’s ability to obtain and examine vast swathes of information has been furiously debated ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about how the British agency received data relating to UK citizens from America’s National Security Agency up to 2014 – a practice branded unlawful by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. And there will always be a divergence of views between those who place primacy on GCHQ doing anything in its power to maintain public safety, and those who feel unease at the prospect of innocent people being subject to collateral intrusion.

Today’s report on these matters by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is a notable intervention. The committee members, like many of their peers, believe that the bulk collection of data by GCHQ is legitimate and does not amount to unjustified, Orwellian surveillance. But they also appear to accept that the current legislation, which sets the parameters for such activities, is overly complex and lacks transparency. The committee’s description of the existing legal framework as arguably providing intelligence agencies with a “blank cheque to carry out whatever activities they deem necessary” is a damning indictment. Its call for a new, single piece of legislation to replace and clarify current statutes should be acted on by the next government as a matter of priority.

The discovery that a handful of intelligence officers appear to have misused surveillance powers and been subsequently disciplined by their employers is also worrying. The committee may speak reassuringly about the number of wrongdoers being in “very small single figures” but the revelation will hardly boost confidence in the integrity of Britain’s security personnel. The committee is right, therefore, to suggest that the next government should consider criminalising such improper use of surveillance techniques.

Positive proposals aside, there is nevertheless something troublingly simplistic about the committee’s top-line conclusion about GCHQ’s bulk interception capability. “GCHQ are not reading the emails of everyone in the UK,” the committee reports soothingly. Well no, and few would have suggested otherwise. And yet thousands of emails are read by analysts every day, and there remains a feeling that the privacy of individual citizens ultimately comes a poor second to other considerations. Some, no doubt, will find that comforting. But surveillance can antagonise as well as protect.

Britain’s security and intelligence agencies have a difficult job at a time when threats to this country are at a pitch unseen for a quarter of a century or more. But it must not be forgotten that the powers at their disposal are immense. Asking that they be used responsibly is not the product of some naive or lily-livered desire for world peace. Rather, it stems from a belief that the glue which binds British society is primarily the combined force of its liberal values, rather than a heavy-booted security capability.