A new, single Act of Parliament should be put in place to
replace all the current legislation governing the intrusive
capabilities of the UK’s other intelligence and security agencies,
says an Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report.
Through the report, the committee acknowledges for the first
time the mass surveillance and bulk interception activities
undertaken by UK agencies. GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 do not
seek to circumvent the law, the report has concluded, but the legal
framework that governs them at the moment is unnecessarily complex
and not transparent enough.
The report has examined whether the intrusion undertaken by
intelligence agencies is justified and whether safeguards and
oversight are adequate. Having decided that new legislation needs
to be put in place, the ISC laid out a set of principles that they
say must underpin any new legal framework.
Committee member and Labour MP Hazel Blears commented on behalf
of the ISC, saying that there was a “legitimate public expectation
of openness and transparency” in today’s society that extended to
the actions of the intelligence agencies. She added that even
though there was an element of their work that needed to happen in
secret, more effort should be made to put more information in the
public domain where possible.
“This Report is an important first step toward greater
transparency. Nevertheless, there is more that could and should be
done. This is essential to improve public understanding and retain
confidence in the vital work of the intelligence and security
Agencies.” said Blears.
For the first time ever, the reports details in full the range
of intrusion capabilities of the UK intelligence agencies. Some of
the information has had to be redacted in the full version of the
report, but the ISC says that it still contains “unprecedented”
amounts of information, including details about the agencies’
capabilities, including Bulk Personal Datasets and Directions under
the Telecommunications Act 1984, which have never before been laid
Based on the public interest in GCHQ’s bulk collection of data,
initiated by Edward Snowden’s revelations, the ISC scrutinised this
activity in particular detail. It concluded that the agency does
need access to internet traffic through bulk interception.
Given the targeting and filtering systems that GCHQ has in
place, the committee decided that this interception “does not
equate to blanket surveillance, nor does it equate to
indiscriminate surveillance”. It was satisfied that current
legislative arrangements are designed to prevent innocent people’s
communications being read.
“GCHQ is not collecting or reading everyone’s emails: they do
not have the legal authority, the resources, or the technical
capability to do so,” the committee said. Overall it described its
findings as “reassuring”, but added that this did not obviate the
need for new legislation.
It recommends, for example, that when GCHQ and the SIS submit
apply to the Foreign Secretary for surveillance warrants, it use
the same process that MI5 currently uses. Standardising the
process, would mean that two agencies would be forced to reveal far
more detail in support of warrant applications.
Similarly, when investigative teams require authorisation that
falls the below the level of requesting a warrant and therefore
must occur within the agency itself, the ISC wants there to be a
clear distinction drawn between those that seek the approval and
those who grant it.
The Committee also expressed concern about the safeguarding of
“thematic warrants”, which are used to intercept the communications
of “a defined group or network”, and are vague enough that they are
at risk of exploitation. These warrants must be issued extremely
sparingly, and with much shorter timescales than other warrants, it
Investigatory Powers Tribunal
When it came to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the secret
court that oversees and governs activities that go on within the
agencies, the ISC expressed balanced scepticism. “The Investigatory
Powers Tribunal is an important component of the accountability
structure. However, we recognise the importance of a domestic right
of appeal and recommend that this is addressed in any new
legislation,” it says.
“We have concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding
these general powers, which could be misconstrued as providing the
Agencies with a ‘blank cheque’ to carry out whatever activities
they deem necessary. We therefore recommend that the Agencies’
powers are set out clearly and unambiguously.”
The ISC added that it felt reassured that the Human Rights Act
1998 acted as a constraint on the agencies’ activities, but that
lack of transparency was again problematic. It called the
interactions between the pieces of legislation “absurdly
complicated”, which made it almost impossible for the public to
It adds that the current arrangements in the Telecommunications
Act 1984, which can be used to compel communications service
providers to assist intelligence agencies, lack clarity and
transparency, and must be reformed.
New legislation, the report states, should clearly list each
intrusive capability available to the UK intelligence agencies and
for each intrusive activity carried out, authorisation should occur
in accordance with strict procedure.
Several of the organisations that recently brought the case
against GCHQ in front of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal have
responded to the ISC report.
The Open Rights Group has issued its own report calling for
oversight mechanisms to be overhauled. In summary the organisation
has insisted that the ISC needs to be totally independent, fully
accountable to Parliament and capable of offering the requisite
technical, legal and ethical expertise to properly asses
Executive Director, Jim Killock: “The ISCs should have
apologised to the nation for their failure to inform Parliament
about how far GCHQ’s powers have grown. This report fails to
address any of the key questions apart from the need to reform our
out-of-date surveillance laws. This just confirms that the ISC
lacks the sufficient independence and expertise to hold the
agencies to account.”
A statement issued by Privacy International applauded the
release of the report, but accused the ISC of trying “to mask the
reality of its admissions by describing GCHQ’s actions as ‘bulk
“No amount of technical and legal jargon can obscure the fact
that this is a parliamentary committee, in a democratic country,
telling its citizens that they are living in a surveillance state
and that all is well,” a spokesperson for the organisation
It added that the report had only occurred in the first place
because of the revelations made by Edward Snowden, which suggests
that the ISC has not been fulfilling its duty up until now.
“Parliament must ensure that the law is fit for purpose, that
all powers and actions are explicitly authorised by an independent
judiciary, and properly overseen to audit use and address any
abuse. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a similar situation
years from now without the benefit of a future Edward Snowden to
prompt officials to do their jobs.”