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UK private commission to snoop on Internet spies

Published time: March 04, 2014 10:12
Edited time: June 27, 2014 08:40
Reuters / Kacper Pempel

Reuters / Kacper Pempel

The UK Deputy PM has commissioned an independent committee to review Britain’s internet surveillance program after failing to convince PM David Cameron of need for new regulations.

Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg has been attempting to persuade the Conservatives and spy agencies on the importance of overhauling internet surveillance and restore public trust following the Snowden disclosures, which revealed a massive amount of data collecting on the part of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

On May 20, 2013, Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, boarded a plane from his home in Hawaii to Hong Kong with what has been described as the most significant leak of sensitive data in US history.

The revelations pointed to a global internet surveillance program that collected meta-data from some of the best-known internet companies in the world. It was also revealed, with significant political fallout among staunch allies, that the private communications of world leaders was considered fair game for the agencies.

"It is not enough for the agencies to claim that they accurately interpret the correct balance between privacy and national security; they must be seen to do so, and that means strong, exacting third-party oversight," Clegg warned in comments to the Guardian.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said the present safeguards were “out of date” and an “inspector general” with powers to investigate MI5, MI6 and GCHQ was required to protect citizens from widespread invasion of their privacy.

“None of the independent commissioners has made substantial public statements in response to the Snowden leaks,” Cooper complained. “They are responsible for checking whether the agencies are abiding by the law. Yet in the face of allegations that GCHQ was breaking the law they have been silent – neither saying they would investigate, nor providing reassurance.”

The Royal United Services Institute has agreed to open a review to examine these kinds of questions, which Clegg said would be headed by “a panel of experts with backgrounds in technology, civil liberties, and intelligence work.”

The panel will report its findings after the general election.

Clegg said the goal of the private review will be to introduce the topic for public debate, noting the "quality of the debate in the US provides an unflattering contrast to the muted debate on this side of the Atlantic."

The deputy PM noted that the legal framework by which the government is authorized to review communications is governed by laws created 14 years ago, before the advent of the internet revolution.

Clegg has also called for changes to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which considers objections against the use of powers by the intelligence agencies.

"There is currently no right of appeal. If the IPT rules against an individual, his or her only recourse is to the European Court of Human Rights,” he noted. “We should enable appeals to be heard in this country, and publish the reasons for rulings."

The top Liberal Democrat is calling for the creation of an inspector general for the UK intelligence services, with “reinforced powers, remit and resources,” with the goal of uniting two existing offices, the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Intelligence Services Commissioner.

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