LONDON — A British intelligence watchdog defended U.K. security agencies’ bulk online data collection Thursday but called for a new law to clarify the agencies’ “intrusive powers” to help improve public trust.
A landmark report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee found that the intelligence agencies acted within existing laws in their bulk interception of online data, saying that it was necessary and proportionate and helped to prevent terrorist plots and cyberattacks.
The watchdog launched the inquiry after the 2013 disclosures by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, that revealed secret details of U.S. and British surveillance activities.
In one of the report’s redacted sections, the committee said that intelligence analysts read only a small percentage of everything that is scooped up online — although that amounts to “around *** thousand items a day.”
“Only the communications of suspected criminals or national security targets are deliberately selected for examination,” the report said.
While GCHQ, Britain’s electronic spy agency, is capable of bulk interception, “it does not equate to blanket surveillance, nor does it equate to indiscriminate surveillance,” Hazel Blears, a member of Parliament on the committee, said in a statement. “GCHQ is not collecting or reading everyone’s e-mails: They do not have the legal authority, the resources, or the technical capability to do so.”
The committee also said that staff members have been disciplined and in some cases dismissed for “inappropriately accessing personal information in these datasets in recent years.”
The committee criticized the existing legislative framework that governs Britain’s surveillance powers as unnecessarily complicated and opaque. Its “key recommendation” was a new law that would “clearly set out the intrusive powers available to the agencies, the purposes for which they may use them, and the authorisation required before they may do so.”
Civil liberties groups welcomed the call to overhaul the surveillance laws but accused the committee of being soft on Britain’s intelligence services, which include GCHQ; MI5, Britain’s domestic spy agency; and MI6, which handles foreign intelligence.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, a human rights campaign group, said the committee was “a simple mouthpiece for the spooks.”
The group Privacy International said that there is a “deeply ingrained secrecy amongst, and deference to, the security services in Britain,” and it paid tribute to Snowden’s disclosures for prompting the unprecedented review of Britain’s spying abilities.
Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said she was “dismayed that the committee has accepted the premise that bulk collection of data does not constitute mass surveillance. It does. Bulk and indiscriminate collection of data poses a serious and severe threat to our civil liberties, including our rights to free expression and to privacy.”