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UK inquiry into spy agency laws flawed, say campaign groups

Warwick Ashford

Leading UK civil liberties and privacy groups have raised concerns about the planned inquiry by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) into laws governing intelligence agencies.

Liberty, Big Brother Watch and Privacy International have described the inquiry as “deeply flawed” in an open letter to the ISC with copies to the prime minister and his deputy.

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Publication of the letter to the ISC coincides with the close of the call for written submissions to the inquiry that was issued in December.

In October, the ISC said it would broaden the inquiry to consider the appropriate balance between the individual right to privacy and the collective right to security.

But the campaign groups do not feel the inquiry can reassure the public that GCHQ and other UK agencies have not acted beyond the law; collected data on millions of innocent people, and undermined cyber security.

“While we will be submitting comments to your inquiry, we would like to place on the public record our substantial concerns about this process,” the letter said.

The first concern is that it is “far from clear” how the legal framework is being used and that the interpretation of law remains secret.

The letter points out that UK ministers refuse to give details of their interpretation of the current regulatory framework, while in the US more than 40 legal opinions and court rulings have been declassified.

Without information about how law is being applied and interpreted, the campaign groups said that proposing specific legal changes, as requested by the ISC, is “extremely difficult”.

The letter questions whether the ISC is the right body to conduct the inquiry in light of the fact that secretaries of state retain a veto over what information the committee can see.

The letter goes on to allege that the ISC has “wholly failed” to ensure the debate around privacy online has been reasonably informed.

“Equally, the Committee appears to have failed to uphold the will of successive parliaments that there would be no central database of communications data, which has now been revealed to have been established under the Tempora programme,” the letter said.

The letter notes that the ISC’s call for papers does not invite comments on the oversight regime of the agencies.

“Given the committee's inquiry inevitably involves assessing its own past performance, it is clear that committee is not a neutral arbiter of the matters in question,” the letter said.

The campaign groups end the letter with a call on parliament to establish a full and independent inquiry, including outside expert members.

Such an inquiry, they said, will be able to consider the full range of issues, including parliamentary accountability and oversight of the agencies and the suitability of the current legal framework.

The letter is signed by Isabella Sankey, policy director at Liberty, Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, and Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International.

The ISC intends to hold oral evidence sessions once written submissions have been reviewed, with a number of these sessions to be held in public.

Those invited to give oral evidence will be selected from among those who have provided written submissions.


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