UK surveillance probe goes public — sort of

The UK government has until now put up something of a wall of silence around its intelligence services’ surveillance activities, but there are signs that this wall might be partially dismantled.

In July, a month after the PRISM scandal broke, the British Parliament’s intelligence oversight committee announced that the country’s spy services had not illegally used the American program to “access the content of private communications” of UK citizens — they knew this because the spy services, namely NSA counterpart GCHQ, told them so.

Not the end of the story

That said, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) conceded that the laws it was talking about were a tad fuzzy and perhaps out-of-date, so the investigation quietly continued. Now, after months of further surveillance revelations that point to GCHQ itself as a major data-hoover, that inquiry is set to widen: on Thursday, the ISC said it would also look into the impact on people’s privacy, and would even hear evidence from the public.

Even more astonishingly, some of its evidence-gathering sessions may be held in public, rather than in secret as is the norm.

According to Malcolm Rifkind, the ISC chairman and a former UK defence secretary and foreign secretary (pictured above):

“In recent months concern has been expressed at the suggested extent of the capabilities available to the intelligence agencies and the impact upon people’s privacy as the agencies seek to find the needles in the haystacks that might be crucial to safeguarding national security.

“There is a balance to be found between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security.”

The reaction from privacy activists has been cautious, and understandably so – this is the same Malcolm Rifkind who last month downplayed the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the UK’s own Tempora program, a partner program to PRISM, writing:

“On Tempora, it has been well known that the fibre optic cables that carry a significant proportion of the world’s communications pass close to the British coastline and could provide intelligence opportunities. The reality is that the British public are well aware that its intelligence agencies have neither the time nor the remotest interest in the emails or telephone conversations of well over 99% of the population who are neither potential terrorists nor serious criminals. Modern computer technologies do permit the separation of those that are of interest from the vast majority that are not.”

Shooting the messenger

The announcement of limited public involvement in the ISC inquiry follows an extraordinary two weeks in which the Guardian, the British newspaper that has carried much of the Snowden material, has come under sustained attack from the new head of the UK Security Service (a.k.a. MI5), leading right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail and even fellow left-wing newspaper The Independent, whose former editor penned the immortal line: “If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?”

The attacks from other journalists led editors from around the world to defend the Guardian‘s journalism last week, but this week Prime Minister David Cameron piled on, urging MPs to investigate the publication because “what they’re dealing with is dangerous for national security.” Conservative MP Julian Smith also asked police to investigate the Guardian over terrorism offences.

However, this official attitude is not unanimous. Late last week, business secretary Vince Cable said the Guardian was “entirely correct and right” — even “courageous” – to publish the Snowden material. Former Home Office minister Lord Blencathra also said the public had a right to know whether they were being spied upon, especially as proposed laws that would have allowed greater domestic surveillance had been repeatedly shot down. He said that, when his committee had been examining the last such proposal, the intelligence services had not told MPs that they already had mass surveillance capabilities.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this inquiry, one thing it is not concerned with is the surveillance of the rest of the world by British intelligence services.