GCHQ, the government’s secretive eavesdropping agency, is to release information to parliament detailing of the extent of the British use of controversial material gathered by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) through its Prism monitoring programme.
According to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), a report from GCHQ is expected “shortly” following revelations from The Guardian that the newspaper claimed confirmed that GCHQ had access to the information obtained via the Prism programme, which has been monitoring citizens since at least 2010.
Rifkind said: "The ISC is aware of the allegations surrounding data obtained by GCHQ via the US Prism programme. The ISC will be receiving a full report from GCHQ very shortly and will decide what further action needs to be taken as soon as it receives that information."
According to The Guardian, the Cheltenham-based agency created around 200 intelligence reports between May 2011 and May 2012 through information gained via PRISM, circumventing legal barriers because the information was gathered from outside the UK.
In response, GCHQ released a statement saying it took its obligations under the law “very seriously".
The statement added: "Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee."
The Prism system reportedly offers American security agencies access to data gathered by some of the world’s biggest Internet companies, including Skype, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Its use by the NSA was detailed in reports by The Guardian after revelations of a secret court order that forced Verizon, the American telecoms giant, to disclose telephone records of its customers.
On Friday, Barack Obama defended the NSA, adding that America is "going to have to make some choices" about how it balances security with privacy in the country's ongoing task of stopping terror attacks.
Reacting to the news that GCHQ may have used the monitoring programme, Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "It is important for the UK intelligence community to be able to gather information from abroad including from the United States, particularly in the vital counter-terror work they do. However, there also have to be legal safeguards in place, including proper protection for British citizens' privacy, proper oversight and checks and balances to make sure intelligence powers are not misused.
“And the public need confidence that their privacy is being properly respected and protected. That is why the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and all the intelligence agencies should provide full information to the Intelligence and Security Committee as swiftly as possible, and the ISC should have full support to pursue this and report."
David Davis, the Tory MP, questioned why Parliament had no knowledge of the Prism system.
He said: "In the absence of parliamentary knowledge approval by a secretary of state is a process of authorisation, not a process of holding to account. Since nobody knew it was happening at all there is no possibility of complaint. No review will be conducted by the two commissioners; the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Intelligence Services Commissioner. Furthermore since it is outside the normal remit of UK intelligence it is hard to see how the Intelligence and Security Committee would have the resources or access to ensure the NSA behaved appropriately."
Director of civil rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, called the reports a “breach of trust on the grandest scale”.
She said: "Don't we still believe that spies should be accountable to the public they serve and protect? This is the kind of arrogance behind the attempted "snoopers' charter". Have those who failed to persuade in the Parliament chamber decided to smuggle blanket surveillance in through the back door?"
Nick Pickles, who works for the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, echoed Chakrabarti’s concern. He said: "There are legal processes to request information about British citizens using American services and if they are being circumvented by using these NSA spying arrangements then that would be a very serious issue."