U.K. spies intercept Britons’ online communications in bulk and keep personal data on large numbers of British citizens – but not enough to amount to blanket surveillance or “reading everyone’s emails,” lawmakers said Thursday.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has made the most detailed public disclosure yet of Britain’s electronic snooping abilities. The agencies’ surveillance powers have been under scrutiny since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of spies’ ability to monitor phone and online communications.
The legislators said the electronic spy agency GCHQ accesses “a very small percentage” of internet traffic through the fiber-optic cables that carry communications. The report said a small portion of that data is collected and even less is read – though even that amounts to thousands of items a day.
The report said that only the communications of “suspected criminals or national security targets” are selected for examination.
“It is clear to us that GCHQ do not conduct blanket surveillance,” committee member Hazel Blears said. “It’s not blanket and it’s not indiscriminate.”
The report’s summary stressed that GCHQ “is not collecting or reading everyone’s emails.”
Blears said that bulk interception of internet data “has exposed previously unknown threats or plots” – but the report, portions of which are redacted, did not give details.
The report revealed that spies have “bulk datasets” containing “significant quantities of personal information about British citizens.” It said some staff have been disciplined or dismissed for inappropriately accessing personal information.
Blears said such cases were extremely rare.
The legislators concluded that spy agencies do not seek to break the law, but that the complex rules governing their activities should be simplified into a single law. And they said there should be additional safeguards for sensitive professions including lawyers, doctors and journalists.
Blears said that what the committee had learned about safeguards on snooping powers was “on the whole, reassuring.”
The report quoted testimony from Andrew Parker, director of domestic intelligence agency MI5, who said that “it is absolutely not the case that there is anybody in MI5 sat there, just trawling through this stuff, looking at something that looks interesting.”
Civil-liberties groups, however, said the lawmakers were being too trusting.
A separate report by Interception of Communications Commissioner Anthony May revealed that a GCHQ employee was fired last year for gross misconduct after undertaking unauthorized searches for communications data.
Shami Chakrabarti of civil-rights group Liberty called the committee “clueless and ineffective” and said the intelligence agencies could not be trusted.