Thousands of our private communications are being read by GCHQ spies every day through 'bulk interception' methods, a government has report revealed - but we don't know exactly how many, because keys details have been redacted.
The long-awaited report sparked by the Edward Snowden revelations showed that thousands of messages - including innocent communications - are accessed by analysts every day.
But the report gives very few specific numbers. In one heavily-redacted section, a starred-out sentence says "around *** thousand items a day" are intercepted, meaning the number could be between 1,000 and 999,000 messages a day.
The report claims this amounts to only a tiny percentage of internet traffic.
In its paper on privacy and security, Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee said that analysts at the Government listening post collect "large numbers of items" but adds they have all been "targeted in some way".
The Committee says it is "unavoidable that some innocent communications may have been incidentally collected" but insists only exchanges involving suspected criminals or national security targets are deliberately selected for examination.
These are "only the ones considered to be of the highest intelligence value", the ISC adds.
The ISC report says a single law is required to keep in check the powers of the intelligence agencies to snoop on private communications because the current legal framework governing the likes of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 is "unnecessarily complicated" and "lacks transparency".
However, the Committee found that through the mass surveillance programmes, the intelligence agencies were not attempting to cheat the law.
Jodie Ginsberg, the CEO of Index on Censorship, said: “Index welcomes the recognition by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee that Britain’s surveillance laws require a complete overhaul.
"However, we are 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.”
The ISC inquiry into privacy and security was announced in July 2013 after Mr Snowden, a US intelligence operative, revealed details of bulk interception of private communications by GCHQ and its American counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).
Documents handed to newspapers including The Guardian revealed the agencies are able to tap into the internet communications of millions of ordinary citizens through different programmes such as GCHQ's Tempora and the NSA's Prism.
Speaking on behalf of the Committee, Hazel Blears MP said: "There is a legitimate public expectation of openness and transparency in today's society, and the security and intelligence agencies are not exempt from that.
"While we accept that they need to operate in secret if they are to be able to protect us from those who are plotting in secret to harm us, the Government must make every effort to ensure that information is placed in the public domain when it is safe to do so.
"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."