So, it’s all alright then: in the wake of Edward Snowden’s exposé of mass global surveillance, the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has concluded that GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 broke no laws in their bulk data collection operations after all.
The 149-page report, Privacy and Security: A modern and transparent legal framework, did find that new legislation was required to govern surveillance and data protection more transparently and straightforwardly. ISC member, Hazel Blears MP, described the existing legal framework as “unnecessarily complicated”, adding that the Committee was recommending a new, single Act of Parliament instead.
But the mental gymnastics the Committee appears to have undergone are, frankly, somewhat astonishing. The security agencies, it claims, broke no laws because bulk data interception, which it concedes they engaged in, is not bulk surveillance.
Unsurprisingly, the response of privacy campaigners to the ISC’s deliberations have ranged from the underwhelmed to the positively scathing. The director of the civil rights organisation Liberty, Shami Chakarabarti, for example, described the ISC as “a simple mouthpiece for the spooks” which was “clueless and ineffective” in assessing the behaviour of intelligence services.
She went on:
“The Committee calls this report a landmark for ‘openness and transparency’ – but how do we trust agencies who have acted unlawfully, hacked the world’s largest sim card manufacturer and developed technologies capable of collecting our login details and passwords, manipulating our mobile devices and hacking our computers and webcams?”
Other privacy groups were a little more muted in their response, but they hardly gave the Committee any accolades. The CEO of Index on Censorship welcomed the recommended legal overhaul, but said that her organisation was “dismayed” that the ISC had accepted the security agencies’ premise that bulk data collection doesn’t constitute mass surveillance:
“It does … [and] poses a serious and severe threat to our civil liberties.”
For its part, the Open Rights Group has produced its own alternative ISC report in which it argues that the conduct of GCHQ in particular was potentially far more damaging than the ISC has admitted.
The Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Žižek has long argued that, in an era he characterises as “post-political biopolitics”, many democratic institutions in the West have become organs for rubber stamping secret state operations under the guise of open governance. Perhaps he has a point.