Former UK security minister Pauline Neville-Jones has called for the law governing mass internet surveillance to be tightened up.
Her call comes after a challenge by privacy groups forced top UK counter-terrorism official Charles Farr to reveal a secret government policy justifying mass surveillance of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google users in the UK.
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Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, said in a witness statement that the surveillance is permitted under the law because communications via US-based online services are defined as “external communications”.
Farr is the UK government’s first witness in the case, which will be heard by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal between 14 and 18 July 2014.
By defining communications via US-based platforms as “external”, UK spy agencies effectively freed themselves of the restrictions imposed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).
Under the legislation, which regulates public bodies' surveillance powers, “internal” communications may be intercepted only under a warrant that relates to a specific individual or address.
These warrants can be granted only where there is some suspicion of unlawful activity. By contrast, “external communications” may be intercepted, even if there are no grounds to suspect wrongdoing.
Farr’s statement is the UK government's first explanation of why it considers it legal to intercept communications through its Tempora surveillance programme.
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But speaking in a debate at University College London, Neville-Jones said Farr’s legal justification for mass surveillance of the internet risks undermining public confidence in the intelligence services.
She also supported calls for the Ripa legislation to be tightened up, reports The Guardian.
Addressing a debate on surveillance organised by law firm Bindmans, Neville-Jones expressed strong reservations about Farr's argument, the paper said.
"If it is the case that officials are exploiting loopholes in the law to get externally generated information that they would not otherwise be able to get [without a warrant], then that's something I would not endorse," she said.
The heads of the UK’s intelligence services have consistently defended their actions by saying that all surveillance is conducted strictly within the confines of UK law.
Neville-Jones said more detail and more regulation of procedure should be added to the Ripa legislation to cover matters that were not previously thought important.
“I think we can improve on the law," she said. “Ripa does need, at the very least, tightening up; others would say reformulating."
Neville-Jones said that in a more globalised world, the distinction between internal and external affairs is breaking down, and should not be used as the legal basis for how surveillance is done.
She also expressed disapproval of the way police are "warranting themselves”, saying that lawyers should be on call 24 hours a day to assess whether to approve applications for surveillance warrants.
However, she said whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about internet surveillance have damaged the UK’s capability to protect its citizens and assets.
Neville-Jones said UK intelligence agency GCHQ needs access to bulk data to spot patterns of connections, and that it is wrong to equate the scanning of bulk data with reading content.