Friday, March 13, 2015

Terror attacks are a 'price we should be willing to pay' to protect us from being snooped on, says privacy group

  • Isabella Sankey said GCHQ should not use bulk data collection at all
  • Some terror plots getting through is a 'price we should be willing to pay'  
  • Labour MP Hazel Blears branded policy director's views as 'unacceptable'
A terror attack in Britain is a ‘price we should be willing to pay’ if it means spy agencies do not have access to masses of personal data, a human rights group has claimed.

Isabella Sankey, Liberty’s director of policy, said it was better to let ‘some things happen’ than to give security services ‘privacy-infringing measures’ designed to catch extremists plotting atrocities in the UK and overseas.

The claim that privacy should be put before national security was condemned as ‘unacceptable’ as a report revealed the extent of snooping by GCHQ.

Liberty, which campaigns on civil liberties and human rights issues, was at the forefront of the criticisms of the security and intelligence services when the claims from whistle-blower Edward Snowden broke in June 2013.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee found that agents at GCHQ, the government listening post, monitor 'large numbers of items' using 'bulk interception' powers to uncover terror threats.

But the committee dismissed the claims that GCHQ had ‘blanket coverage’ of web communications and was rooting indiscriminately through private messages.

It said GCHQ can access only a small part of the web and operatives see only a ‘tiny fraction’ of the messages collected after a sophisticated filtering process.

Isabella Sankey,  Liberty’s director of policy, said some terror attacks succeeding was a ‘price we should be willing to pay’ rather than have GCHQ use ‘bulk collection’ techniques
Isabella Sankey,  Liberty’s director of policy, said some terror attacks succeeding was a ‘price we should be willing to pay’ rather than have GCHQ use ‘bulk collection’ techniques
But this probably still means that thousands of texts, emails and Facebook messages are read every day by Government spies.

Privacy campaigners argue the security services already have too much power to gather and read personal communications.

Giving evidence on behalf of Liberty, Miss Sankey was asked by the committee in October if she opposed bulk collection even if it was used in a ‘targeted’ way to ‘prevent plots and contribute to national security’.

Such techniques were, she said, wrong ‘in principle’ and could not be justified even if they were lawful and authorised.

She added: ‘Some things might happen that could have been prevented if you took all of the most oppressive, restrictive and privacy-infringing measures.

 That is the price you pay to live in a free society.’

Her claims were backed by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch.

But the ISC said: 'We do not subscribe to the point of view that it is acceptable to let some terrorist attacks happen to uphold the individual right to privacy — nor do we believe that the vast majority of the British public would.'

Labour MP Hazel Blears, a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee branded Liberty's views ‘unacceptable’.

Pointing to the comments, Ms Blears said: ‘Their view was even if terrorist plots happened they were not prepared to allow this capability to collect information whereas that’s not a view we take.’

‘The public will want to see they have that capability but absolutely constrained by a proper legal framework.

‘To not have the capability you’re going to accept that some plots will happen and innocent people will lose their lives because you do not want agencies to have this capability. I think it’s unacceptable.’ 

Labour MP Hazel Blears said it was ‘unacceptable’ to suggest capability should not be used to prevent a terror attack
Labour MP Hazel Blears said it was ‘unacceptable’ to suggest capability should not be used to prevent a terror attack

Yesterday Miss Sankey accused the committee of attempting to put words in her mouth.

She said: ‘Instead of attempting to put words into the mouths of privacy campaigners, the ISC should have put its efforts into scrutinising the agencies.

‘There is absolutely no excuse for terrorism and society must take all proportional steps to deal with it – but the real story here is that, despite their best efforts, the committee has been unable to present any evidence that mass surveillance of innocents’ calls and emails is saving any lives.’

Graham Foulkes, whose son David, 22, was killed in the 2005 London bombings, told The Times: ‘The question that should be asked is, what's the minimum interference in our freedom that gives us maximum protection?

‘Liberty is isolated from the real world. Because it is so lauded and courted by politicians, it has lost sense of what it's all about."

The committee's 18-month inquiry said Britain's spy agencies were not breaking the law – but called for a complete overhaul of the rules governing what they were allowed to do in the interests of national security.

The report says a single law is needed to keep in check the powers of the intelligence agencies to snoop on private communications, because the current legal framework governing the likes of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 is 'unnecessarily complicated' and 'lacks transparency'.

Human rights and civil liberties groups dismissed today's report as a whitewash and accused the committee of being 'a mouthpiece for the spooks'.

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?'

Rachel Logan, Amnesty UK's Legal Programme Director, said: 'The oversight of the security services should be the responsibility of a properly independent body.

'The Prime Minister holds a veto over who sits on the ISC, what it can examine, and what it can report so there is absolutely no way it can be considered an adequate independent regulator of the activities of our spies.'

Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock added: 'The ISC should have apologised to the nation for their failure to inform Parliament about how far GCHQ's powers have grown.

'This report fails to address any of the key questions apart from the need to reform our out-of-date surveillance laws.

 This just confirms that the ISC lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the agencies to account.'

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