Prosecute spies who abuse powers, PM told

Hazel Blears
Hazel Blears
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A RADICAL OVERHAUL of the laws which govern UK surveillance is needed to prevent agencies from abusing their powers, according to a report conducted in the wake of high-profile revelations from former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden.

Misuse of ‘perception capabilities’ being made a criminal offence is just one of the recommendations which has been put forward to the Government by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

Members called for a change in the law in yesterday’s long-awaited report, which was heavily redacted, after investigations into MI5, MI6 and GCHQ found cases where staff had been disciplined or dismissed for inappropriately accessing personal information obtained through bulk data collection.

Attacking the current legal framework as “unnecessarily complicated”, they said a single law is required to keep in check the powers of the intelligence agencies to snoop on private communications.

Speaking on behalf of the committee, MP Hazel Blears said: “There is a legitimate public expectation of openness and transparency in today’s society, and the security and intelligence agencies are not exempt from that.

“While we accept that they need to operate in secret if they are to be able to protect us from those who are plotting in secret to harm us, the Government must make every effort to ensure that information is placed in the public domain when it is safe to do so.

“This report is an important first step toward greater transparency.”

While fellow ISC member Lord Butler of Brockwell, said there were only “very small single figures of abuse”, the publication of findings has prompted outcry from civil liberties and anti-Big Brother groups.

Public concern is likely to be exacerbated by further news that the Interception of Communications Commissioner Rt Hon Sir Mark Waller uncovered a serious case from last year, when a GCHQ employee deliberately undertook a number of unauthorised searches for related communications data. The abuse of the systems amounted to gross misconduct and the individual was fired.

The ISC probe was ordered after Snowden, who is living in Russia after fleeing the USA, gave the media details of extensive internet and phone surveillance.

One heavily-redacted part of the paper on privacy and security said thousands of private communications are read by GCHQ spies every day through bulk interception methods, but failed to specify numbers.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of rights campaign group Liberty, said: “The ISC has repeatedly shown itself as - so clueless and ineffective that it’s only thanks to Edward Snowden that it had the slightest clue of the agencies’ antics.

“The committee calls this report a landmark for ‘openness and transparency’ - but how do we trust agencies who have acted unlawfully, hacked the world’s largest sim card manufacturer and developed technologies capable of collecting our login details and passwords, manipulating our mobile devices and hacking our computers and webcams?”

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that he will put the oversight of the security services’ use of bulk personal datasets on a statutory footing.

He said: “I am issuing a direction to Sir Mark to put this into effect.”