By Michael Holden
British spies, accused of undertaking mass, unfettered surveillance of the public’s communications, are not breaking the law nor reading everyone’s emails but do need to be more open, a powerful committee of lawmakers said on Thursday.
Britain’s three security agencies – MI5, which deals with domestic matters, MI6, which handles foreign intelligence and the eavesdropping service GCHQ – have all come under fire from civil rights groups since disclosures by Edward Snowden two years ago.
Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, leaked material to the media which indicated British and U.S. spies had been intercepting emails, text messages and internet communications on a large scale.
But parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which acts as a watchdog for the spy agencies, said there was no evidence they had acted illegally.
“GCHQ is not collecting or reading everyone’s emails: they do not have the legal authority, the resources, or the technical capability to do so,” said Hazel Blears, one of the committee members and a former Home Secretary (interior minister).
The debate over how much access the authorities should have to people’s communications data has raged in Britain over the last few years.
Security chiefs and police say new powers to monitor emails and social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter are vital if they are to keep up with terrorists and criminals, while opponents argue any new laws would breach privacy and amount to a “snoopers’ charter”.
Last month, a British tribunal ruled GCHQ had acted unlawfully by accessing data on millions of people in Britain that had been collected by the NSA because the arrangements were secret.
However, it too had concluded the British regime governing the data collection did not violate human rights.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said his Conservative Party would give the security agencies more power to monitor internet communications if he wins May’s national election.
The ISC said while it was “evident” GCHQ had the capability to carry out bulk interception of emails, this did not amount to blanket or indiscriminate surveillance.
“Only a very tiny percentage of those collected are ever seen by human eyes,” Blears said.
However, the committee said there needed to be a new, less complicated legal framework, enshrined in law, to govern the work of the spies to ensure greater transparency and oversight of their work, and to strengthen privacy protections.