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Time for a public inquiry into mass surveillance

Public InquiryThe role of Parliament is to hold the Executive (Government) to account and the role of the media is to prevent the abuse of power and to provide a mechanism of accountability where that fails. Are they at present fulfilling that role? Neither is. And both have failed at the critical point where today the development of extraordinarily powerful new communication technologies have far exceeded the capability of current instruments to apply effective oversight. The nursery story hitherto has been that for MI5/6 to target an individual or group, they had to get a warrant from the Home Secretary.

The truth is, and has been for some time already, that the NSA in the US via the Prism programme and GCHQ in the UK via the Tempora programme have mutually acquired the capability to hoover up untold vast quantities of personal data from the undersea cables that carry internet data in and out of the UK on a colossal scale, and without any check or accountability at all.

Is this legal? MI5 very dubiously claims justification under section 8, paragraph 4, of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 which refers to ‘external warrants’. This permits GCHQ to carry out sweeping and indiscriminate trawling through external data if a minister signs a certificate together with the warrant. This scintilla of constraint has been easily broken by certificates issued under a number of themes which effectively allow the whole range of GCHQ’s intelligence work to proceed in any area unchecked.

Does this matter? It does. Tempora already allows GCHQ the capacity to collect more than 21 petabytes of data per day. To put that in context, that is the equivalent of sending all the data in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours. Already 2 years ago there were 550 British and American analysts ploughing through this Tempora database. The balance between safeguarding personal safety and tracking down terrorism and serious crime has been drastically breached. The security agencies are out of control and operating via outdated laws without any genuine public mandate.

The counter-argument used by the agencies and the government is that the revelation of these unlicensed powers by the Snowden files compromises national security. On the contrary it is highly unlikely that terrorists or international criminals have learnt anything from the Snowden (and Guardian and New York Times) revelations that they didn’t know already. What is much more to the point is that the protestations about national security are being used to try to shut down the fact that these powers universally breaching personal privacy were adopted long before there was any attempt to legalise their use.

Section 8.4 of RIPA was never intended to cover practices like the Prism and Tempora projects, which explains why Theresa May was so extremely anxious to use the Communications Bill 12 years later to try to give some retrospective cover for these illicit activities.

We urgently need a debate in Parliament on these matters, and that is why I am bidding for such a debate under the Back-Bench Business Committee procedure – I hope with the co-operation of David Davis MP and Simon Hughes MP.

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