A senior British MP says the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. and Britain’s spying on ordinary people are “real issues” raised about safeguarding privacy.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, head of the watchdog that oversees Britain’s spying agencies, admitted that the revelations require the laws governing the agencies including GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 be refreshed.
"There are real issues that do arise out of the Snowden affair in Britain, as elsewhere," said Rifkind, who chairs the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC).
"Even if the intelligence agencies always act within the law it must be right for that law to be reviewed from time to time to see whether the safeguards are adequate. Sometimes they are not."
There are three laws in the UK governing system, which scrutinize spying services, including the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The ISC is currently reviewing these laws.
The intelligence-gathering programmes run by GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA) have been denounced by experts and activists as attacks on citizens’ privacy without scrutiny.
This comes as it was revealed last Friday that Britain’s spying apparatus has been secretly hacking into the Belgian telecoms giant Belgacom for at least three years.
However, Sir Malcolm claimed that the UK enjoyed an "effective and extensive system of independent oversight" of the three services - GCHQ, MI5, and MI6.
He also claimed people were "well aware British intelligence agencies have neither the time nor the remotest interest in the emails or telephone conversations of well over 99% of the population".
His comments were dismissed by Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, who described Rifkind and his committee as part of the problem, not the solution.
"Stating that British intelligence agencies have "neither the time nor the remotest interest" in the communications of the 99% of the public, but acknowledging that regardless those communications are swept up and monitored, should not offer any comfort to the public whose fundamental right to privacy remains violated. Intelligence agencies are there to protect citizens, but in placing those same citizens under suspicion-less surveillance and inserting back doors in the very security standards we rely on to communicate with confidence, the agencies have lost the trust of those they are meant to serve", King said, adding that “mass surveillance must never be accepted as legitimate in a democratic society.
"The current legal framework is not fit for purpose, and the ISC's credibility as an independent oversight committee will continue to decline until this fundamental fact is accepted", King noted.
Human Rights Watch said governments had to "aggressively protect online privacy through stronger laws and policies". Without this, the internet could be severely compromised.
"The shocking revelations of mass monitoring by the US and UK show how privacy protections have not kept pace with technology," said Cynthia Wong, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"As our lives become more digitised, unchecked surveillance can corrode everyone's rights and the rule of law."