Post-Snowden, U.K. Parliamentary Committee To Probe Individual Privacy Vs. National Security

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A U.K. parliamentary committee has widened the scope of a planned inquiry into the legislative framework governing national intelligence agencies’ access to private information, triggered by the PRISM revelations in the U.S. It will now consider more broadly the impact of mass surveillance on individuals’ right to privacy.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said today it will broaden the scope of its forthcoming inquiry — in order “to examine the appropriate balance between privacy and security in an internet age”.

The ISC announced its intention to probe the work of GCHQ, the UK’s spy agency, back in July — following allegations that it had broken U.K. law by intercepting communications under the U.S. PRISM programme, noting at the time:

Stories in the media have asserted that GCHQ had access to PRISM and thereby to the content of communications in the UK without proper authorisation. It is argued that, in so doing, GCHQ circumvented UK law. This is a matter of very serious concern: if true, it would constitute a serious violation of the rights of UK citizens.

The committee said today it has satisfied itself that GCHQ “has not circumvented or attempted to circumvent U.K. law” but said it believes it is still necessarily to examine whether the current statutory framework governing access to private communications is fit for purpose.

Specifically it is looking at what it calls the  “complex interaction” between three pieces of legislation: the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act — “and the policies and procedures that underpin them”.

ISC chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, said the committee will address concerns about the “suggested extent” of the capabilities available to the intelligence agencies, commenting further:

There is a balance to be found between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security. An informed and responsible debate is needed. The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament has therefore decided to broaden the scope of its forthcoming inquiry to consider these wider questions, in addition to those relating to the existing legislative framework.

As part of this wider remit, the committee said it will be taking written evidence “more broadly” — so not just from the classified sources it has access to but also inviting submissions from the public — in order to “consider the full range of opinions”.

It also plans to hold oral evidence sessions — some of which it said it expects to hold in public. This is not a full-blown public inquiry but is at least more open than the ISC’s typical modus operandi. Still, it remains to be seen how rigorous the inquiry will be, and whether this is more an attempt to whitewash criticism of GCHQ and to avoid a more detailed public probe of its activities.

U.K. newspaper The Guardian has been publishing information on GCHQ’s activities sourced from information provided by security agency whistleblower Edward Snowden — including details of Tempora, a GCHQ programme which the paper describes as a “large-scale ‘Internet buffer’” that stores Internet content for three days and metadata for 30 — via the agency tapping into fibre optic cables carrying phone calls and Internet data — and the harvested info then being shared with the NSA.

The string of revelations about GCHQ’s surveillance activities has ramped up political pressure for a wider inquiry into its practices — even as The Guardian has come under sustained attack from some U.K politicians and portions of the U.K. media for making sensitive security information public.