Reigniting the surveillance debate: Competing views emerge from UK government

News & Analysis
Reigniting the surveillance debate: Competing views emerge from UK government

It was a strangely quiet summer. Beyond the Guardian's reporting of the Edward Snowden leaks and an appearance of William Hague before Parliament, there has been little uproar from the establishment about the extensive surveillance regime operated by the NSA and GCHQ.

No more greater has the silence been felt than from Whitehall, where MPs and government agencies remained tightlipped on the whole affair. This despite the fact that the revelations detailed the UK government's role in mass spying around the world, specifically that the communications of almost everybody in the UK are being intercepted and stored as part of GCHQ's Tempora programme.

That was until last week, when a speech made by MI5 chief Sir Andrew Parker caused a back and forth among Britain's highest officials, finally sparking a much-needed debate amongst the most powerful in the UK on mass surveillance, GCHQ, and whether Parliament is properly performing their oversight duties of intelligence agencies. Now, a coalition of UK's leading privacy advocates are reaching out to see if the Coalition government really wants to engage in that debate.

It's about time

Unlike their counterparts in America, Parliament and Prime Minister David Cameron have stayed relatively silent on the details in the Snowden leaks about GCHQ's activities. Last week, though, MI5 head Parker laid out one of the Government's strongest defences of its surveillance operations:

We are facing an international threat and GCHQ provides many of the intelligence leads upon which we rely. It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. … It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm."

Of course, these comments are just reruns of the same tired lines by those defending spy programmes like Prism and Tempora. Indeed, during Parker's entire speech, he mentioned "terrorist" or "terrorism" over 40 times. Privacy (the other side of this equation, the human right that officials often say needs to be in balance with security) was not mentioned once. So much for that balance.

But what Parker's speech did do was, finally, reignite the dormant debate around State surveillance in the UK, demonstrating a possibly fractured Coalition government when it comes to UK spying powers and right to privacy of its citizens.

Prime Minister David Cameron defended Parker and endorsed the speech, calling it "excellent." A day later, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg countered his coalition partner and said there was a "totally legitimate debate to be had", suggesting that existing laws meant to oversee intelligence services are outdated. He went on to say " can only really make secrecy legitimate in the eyes of the public if there is a proper form of accountability." Business Secretary Vince Cable followed Clegg's comments up confirming that conversations have been set in motion to improve the political and legal oversight of intelligence agencies in Britain, something which was contested by Cameron, saying the oversight mechanism works fine. These competing views were further echoed by a back and forth in the British press, which also debated the role journalism played throughout this entire proceeding.

And now the legal community is weighing in. The Law Society released a statement, saying "The ability of clients to consult and receive advice from lawyers with certainty of absolute confidentiality is fundamental to the rule of law and the values of our democracy. The Law Society would regard it as very serious indeed if privileged correspondence were to be intercepted. We are looking at the issue and considering whether there needs to be advice given to the profession." Further, the former director of public prosecutions, Lord MacDonald QC, said the Coalition should not resist calls for strict oversight greater transparency, calling Parker's speech was "foolish self-serving rhetoric"

Reforms for oversight desperately needed

Comments made by Prime Minister Cameron, hopefully not in vain, seem to suggest a small opening. "If people want to suggest improvements about how they are governed and looked after I am very happy to listen to those, but as far as I can see we have a very good system." In response to the Prime Ministers comments, a group of UK advocacy groups, privacy experts, and academics wrote a letter suggesting at least 10 areas of reform needed, including a review of the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act of 2000 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994 to update changes in technology.

Despite the Government's insistence, we know that there is no effective oversight, since it has been revealed that relevant committees and councils, including the National Security Council, are routinely left in the dark. And the one person charged with spearheading oversight, Malcolm Rifkind, is a former foreign secretary and now is chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. In some ways, we cannot be surprised then that Rifkind behaves as a spokesman for the Government in defending these practices instead of critically analysing them.

What we need, instead of blind defence of the Government's actions, is root and branch reform of our out-of-control intelligence agencies, who able to operate above scrutiny despite running roughshod over our privacy rights. We hope that the debate started last week is just the beginning, and not just a political dustup eventually pushed under the rug.