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PRISM fallout: Hague says UK citizens have ‘nothing to fear’ from GCHQ surveillance

Published time: June 09, 2013 16:35
Edited time: June 11, 2013 08:55
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (AFP Photo / Abbas Momani)

British Foreign Secretary William Hague (AFP Photo / Abbas Momani)

Law-abiding citizens need not fear intelligence sharing between the US and UK, Britain’s Foreign Secretary promised. His comments follow reports data gathered in the US-run PRISM program was shared with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

British Foreign Secretary William Hague affirmed that a “lot of information was shared with the United States,” adding that the two countries shared "an exceptional intelligence sharing relationship."

However, Hague would neither confirm nor deny GCHQ, Britain’s electronic eavesdropping and security agency,  had received information clandestinely obtained via the United States National Security Agency’s (NSA) ‘PRISM’ electronic surveillance program.

The Foreign Secretary is set to appear before the House of Commons to provide a statement on Monday following media reports that since June 2010, GCHQ has had access to PRISM, which grants the NSA a direct line to data stored on the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and five other tech giants.

GCHQ generated 197 intelligence reports from data obtained via the program last year, allegedly allowing the agency to bypass the legal checks normally required to obtain such information.

The GCHQ was also reportedly given access to so-called “telephony metadata” culled from the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon –  one of the largest telecommunication companies in the United States in a separate NSA-run program.

The Foreign Secretary dismissed as “nonsense” claims that GCHQ “are sitting around working out how to circumvent a UK law with another agency.”

Hague continued that any information arriving in the UK from the US is “governed by our laws,” insisting that efforts to thwart terrorism did not endanger civil liberties.   

"If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country ... you'll never be aware of all the things those (intelligence) agencies are doing to stop your identity being stolen or to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow," Reuters cites Hague as saying.

"But if you are a would-be terrorist or the center of a criminal network or a foreign intelligence agency trying to spy on Britain you should be worried because that is what we work on and we are on the whole quite good at it,"
he continued.

The Foreign Secretary stressed that any intelligence gathering was “authorized, necessary, proportionate and targeted,” adding that he personally signed off on GCHQ intercepts “most days of the week.”

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham (Reuters)

However, Business Secretary Vince Cable, speaking on Sky News’ Murnaghan program, said that PRISM may have allowed the government to operate a covert sort of ‘snoopers charter’ by the back door.

Douglas Alexander, the opposition Labour party's spokesman for foreign affairs, expressed his intention to ask Hague in the House of Commons how exactly his department oversees the legal frameworks governing such intelligence gathering operations.   

"It is vital that the Government now reassures people who are rightly concerned about these reports," Alexander said in a statement.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee Committee (ISC) has demanded a report from GCHQ on the matter “and will decide what further action needs to be taken as soon as it receives that information," chairman Malcom Rifkind said.

ISC Committee members are set to discuss the issue with US security officials during a planned visit to Washington on Monday.