UK parties signal surveillance crackdown

A massive blow has been dealt to the controversial internet surveillance practices of the UK intelligence agencies by the manifestos of an overwhelming majority of political parties in the forthcoming election.

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Not even social media can call what many see as an inevitable hung parliament and with most parties now calling for more oversight the activities highlighted by Snowden may end.

In a series of statements obtained from all of the major political parties by Future Intelligence, only the Conservative Party has defended the policy and stated categorically it will extend the activities of GCHQ by allowing it to extend its brief to monitor online chat services.

The hard-line approach taken by all of the smaller parties to the intelligence agencies indicates a growing loss of patience with a policy that most see as intrusive, ineffective and unnecessary with a broad agreement among the parties that GCHQ should prove the need for surveillance and target its resources accordingly.

The position of UKIP, which is a potential coalition partner of the Conservative Party in the event of a hung parliament, is typical of the uncompromising view on the level of intelligence agency surveillance revealed by the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden.

“As a Libertarian party UKIP is totally opposed to mass surveillance.

In order to protect the security of the British people, surveillance must only be carried out to on a specific person or group after there is sound evidence or reason to believe terrorism is being planned, and the go ahead is authorised by a judge. There is a constant need for transparency and accountability in this process,” said Mike Hookem, MEP, UKIP’s defence spokesman.

The UKIP position is reflected by all of the other junior political parties with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, furious at the attempts by the previous coalition to rush through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act as emergency legislation and the introduction of further legislation, which has been dubbed ‘the snoopers’ charter’.

Elfyn Llwyd MP, Plaid Cymru’s group leader in Westminster, said:  

“I have already received many messages from constituents voicing concerns over the fact that this law infringes upon civil liberties, and we as MPs need ample time to engage with these concerns in a democratic way.

“As a matter of principle, if the Prime Minister consulted with the Liberal Democrats and Labour ahead of this announcement, he should have consulted with all parties.

“This legislation is indiscriminate in the sense that it targets all citizens, not just suspects. Plaid Cymru will not be supporting this bill.”

In an even more damaging development for the intelligence agencies, which have been pressing the Government for even greater access to communications and an attempt to deal with an increase in encrypted traffic as a result of the Snowden revelations most Westminster parties are calling for the development of both targeted surveillance and an increase in oversight.

A position that the Scottish Nationalist Party made clear in its manifesto:We do not support Tory plans for the reintroduction of the so-called ‘snoopers’ charter’, which would see all online activity of every person in the UK stored for a year. Instead, we need a proportionate response to extremism. That is why we will support targeted, and properly overseen, measures to identify suspected extremists and, if necessary, examine their online activity and communications.”

The past six months have seen a list of senior UK political, police and intelligence figures calling for an extension of surveillance powers and cited on-going issues with terrorism, organised crime and paedophilia as the reasons.

However, opposition to the surveillance policies of the US NSA, which partners with the UK’s GCHQ in internet monitoring has also been mounting.

Three months ago, the US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, published a report calling for an end to what is known as the bulk collection of phone data – a practice that means communications companies are required to keep the records of who has communicated with whom and when, and make that information available to the authorities.

A report this month by USA Today revealed that both the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the US Justice Department had also been accessing the phone records of US citizens for decades.

According to the PCLOB the practice was ineffective while significantly invading privacy.

The board concluded that the bulk surveillance was a threat to constitutional liberties and could not find “a single instance” in which the program “made a concrete difference in the outcome of a terrorism investigation”.

“Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

While the practice of internet surveillance has drawn similar claims and prompted calls from all major US technology companies for it to be discontinued.

At the end of last month, Reform Government Surveillance a group that includes Apple, Facebook, Google, Evernote, Twitter and Microsoft called on the US administration not to renew the bulk collection of phone data when the Congressional Bill authorising it runs out.

It is a US pressure that is likely to be reflected in the UK and it is pressure that Sir David Omand the former head of the UK’s listening agency GCHQ rejects.

“The problem is that as more and more communications travel across the internet – skype, ichat, those sort of applications, it is harder and harder for the authorities to know who is communicating with whom.

“They can do that with more traditional telephone calls and they have the legal authority to do that, the companies retain the data of whom called whom for telephone calls perfectly legally and that can be accessed so that suspects can be investigated but that’s not available for the more advanced internet communications because the companies have no need of their own to retain the data.

“The big argument that there has been over the last year is should Parliament legislate to make that a requirement for those providing that service in the UK, and if so what are the safeguards? And that debate will have to be had after the election,” said Omand, speaking in an exclusive interview with Future Intelligence’s ‘PassW0rd’ radio programme.

It is a debate that now promises to be very robust, with all of the UK political parties recognising in their statements that the oversight of the Intelligence Select Committee formerly chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind needed significant improvement, a point recognised by Omand.

“I think the parliamentary oversight was on this issue fairly light. The parliamentarians concerned would probably be the first to admit that they were not technical experts. Now they’ve got more staff, they’ve got technical expertise coming in, they are studying it.’

That there is a need for enhanced oversight has been recognised by the Conservatives who have been the main supporters of the intelligence agencies’ surveillance policies to date: “We will use all the legal powers available to us to make sure that where appropriate the police and security and intelligence agencies have the maximum ability to intercept the communications of suspects, while ensuring that such intrusive techniques are properly overseen,” said a Conservative Party spokesman, reaffirming calls from both Prime Minister David Cameron and the Home Secretary Theresa May for the need to restrict encryption and ban some on-line instant messaging systems from UK servers.

The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ former coalition partner has indicated that it considers the area of surveillance one of clear dispute between the two parties.

“We have made this a manifesto issue. It’s a very important issue for our party. Unlike Labour and the Tories, we are a party of civil liberties. We blocked the so-called Snooper’s Charter in 2013 and we’re fully prepared to block it again. We have yet to see a convincing argument for more surveillance powers,” Said a Liberal Democrat spokesman.

“We are opposed to the blanket collection of UK residents’ personal communications by the police or the intelligence agencies. In relation to GCHQ, we think there is a role for bulk data in tracking foreign terrorist targets, but the rules need to be tightened to ensure that innocent people in the UK are not having their communications routinely collected and analysed.”

And while the Labour Party appear to offer a crumb of comfort to the hawks in the intelligence agencies pushing for more access the party has fallen into line with the calls for oversight from potential future coalition partners.

“In the face of growing online crime and abuse, and the use of online communications by criminals and extremists, the police, intelligence and security agencies need to be able to operate more effectively to keep us safe. But for them to do so, we also need stronger safeguards and limits to protect our privacy and sustain confidence in this vital work. The existing oversight and legal frameworks are now out of date, and there are difficult wider challenges about privacy, data and the private sector, and how we protect British citizens’ interests in a global internet where everyone follows different rules.”