UK terrorism law watchdog calls for major surveillance overhaul

David Anderson, Britain’s independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, says the framework overseeing the interception of emails, phone calls and online activity by police and spies needs a major overhaul.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UK (JUNE 11, 2015) (ITN) – Britain’s terrorism law watchdog said on Thursday (June 11) the legal framework underpinning security services’ ability to spy on the public’s communications was fragmented, undemocratic and “in the long run intolerable.”

David Anderson, Britain’s independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, said the framework overseeing the interception of emails, phone calls and online activity by police and spies needed a major overhaul, and that the government needed to spell out why the authorities were pressing for even more powers.

However he said, while it should not be easy for the state to access communications, the intelligence agencies should be able to carry out the bulk interception of data.

“We’re going to have a much simpler law telling us when the authorities are allowed to tap a telephone or read an email or even just find out who is in your address book or who you’ve been phoning. That’s a law that’s scattered all over the place at the moment and actually very few people fully understand. I think in a proper democracy you need a law that parliament can understand, and that the people can understand so that we can foresee the sort of situations in which we need to protect our privacy,” said in an interview with broadcaster ITN.

“I’m not recommending anything that is going to make us less safe than we already are. But I am recommending safeguards which I think will please the privacy campaigners or many of them but will also give confidence to the intelligence agencies and the police that when they exercise these powers they are doing so in a proper legal framework and they are doing so with the consent of the public,” he added.

A debate about how to protect privacy whilst ensuring the security agencies have the powers they need has raged since former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about mass surveillance by British and U.S spies.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama signed a law to amend a government surveillance programme that had swept up millions of Americans’ telephone records, in the first major legislative reform since the Snowden revelations two years ago.

Britain’s security chiefs argue they are facing a capability gap because of technological advances, and say that their work has been severely hampered by Snowden’s disclosures.

The head of Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency last year called on technology firms such as Twitter and Facebook to allow security services greater access to their networks, citing their huge importance to militant groups.

Cameron, fresh from an election victory last month, has promised a swathe of new security measures, the most striking and controversial of which are plans to give police greater powers to monitor Britons’ communications and web activities in what opponents have dubbed a “snoopers’ charter”.

In his report Anderson said it was time for a “clean slate” describing the current system as confused, making it “undemocratic, unnecessary and – in the long run – intolerable”.

He called for a new easily understood, comprehensive law with improved safeguards, and judges, not ministers, approving warrants to allow access to the content of emails, phone calls and other communications.

Any further powers, such as forcing service providers to keep details of all individuals’ internet use, should only be allowed after a compelling case was made, he added.

He said that argument had not yet been made, and pointed out no other country he was aware of had or was seeking to retain all web browsing data.

However, Anderson did back allowing bulk collection of data, giving examples where it had been used to thwart militant attacks, including when spies had been alerted to one individual by monitoring Islamic State militants in Syria.

Home Secretary Theresa May told parliament Anderson’s recommendations would be taken into account before a draft bill was published late this year.

“I am very grateful to David Anderson. He has produced a very comprehensive report on the operation of investigatory powers and the regulatory framework for those powers. And he’s clear that we need to update the legislation and the government agrees that we do need to bring in a new bill on investigatory powers. But crucially of course David Anderson has confirmed that the powers that are currently available to the police and to the security agencies are right, are necessary, are needed to be able to to do the job of keeping us safe which they do day in and day out,” May told local media.

Privacy groups said Anderson’s report showed that the system of oversight was flawed and needed total reform.