ISC report: intrusive mass surveillance is fine, so long as spies are more open about it

Report refuses to disclose exactly how much of internet communications are intercepted and read by GCHQ spooks

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 12 March 2015 12:25 GMT

None of the mass, intrusive surveillance carried out by British spy agencies was illegal, a parliamentary report has found, and lawmakers should just request that they are more transparent about what they do.

Bulk surveillance, where GCHQ and other agencies access and spy on all internet traffic, is still needed to uncover threats such as those posed by “cyber criminals, nuclear weapons proliferators or ISIL terrorists”, the report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) says. The legal framework that oversees such spying is “unnecessarily complicated and — crucially — lacks transparency”, the ISC writes, but many of the most widely criticised parts of revelations on surveillance and spying would still be lawful.

The report redacts many of the most important facts about surveillance in the UK, making it impossible to understand the true scale of the intrusion.

Campaigning group Privacy International said that the terms of the report were being used to hide "the reality of its admissions".

"However, no amount of technical and legal jargon can obscure 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 said in a statement.

The report says that the committee has investigated how much of the internet GCHQ hoovers up through its bulk interception, for instance, and says that “only a very small proportion” of the items collected are opened and read by an analyst. But the report blocks out the exact percentage and number of those emails and other communications that are opened, making it impossible to tell what the committee consider a very small proportion.

Rather than criticising bulk surveillance and other intrusions, the report says that the current legislation should be re-written so that it is neater, unifying all of the legislation in “a new, single Act of Parliament”. The proposals for that act do not concentrate on regulating or limiting surveillance, but instead encourages openness and transparency about what spying agencies do.

“This is essential to improve public understanding and retain confidence in the vital work of the intelligence and security Agencies,” the committee writes.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said that 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".

She 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."

The ISC was established in 1994 and reformed in 2013. It is responsible for overseeing intelligence and security operations, including those of government.

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