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Peer demands action over ‘illegal’ Prism programme

US technology companies are operating illegally by accessing data on UK citizens, Lord Laird tells the House of Lords

The government has come under fire in the House of Lords as BCS fellow and former Ulster unionist peer Lord Laird demanded action over Prism.

Prism is a legally questionable mass surveillance programme, involving communications interception and data theft, operated in the UK and other countries by the Security Agency (NSA).

In an unusually busy session, where peers can raise topics of their own in relation to the Queen’s Speech, read in the Lords on 27 May, Laird told the House that the Prism programme is run by nine major internet companies based in the UK.

The companies, revealed by NSA’s whistleblower Edward Snowden, are Apple, Microsoft (including Hotmail) Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Youtube, Paltalk, AOL and Skype.

“This is not part of any scheme operated by the UK information-gathering agencies,” said Laird.

He was referring to findings by the Investigatory Power Tribunal (IPT) in 2014, in a case brought by human rights organisation Liberty, that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) use of data supplied by the US under the Prism programme was unlawful.

GCHQ has subsequently made clear, in an exclusive email to Computer Weekly, that companies operating in the UK must obey UK law.

Criminal offence

Laird informed the House of Lords the interception of communications commissioner Anthony May QC had told the prime minister in his 2014 report that “warrantless interception of communications was a criminal offence”.       

There is no obvious way under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that commercial companies, operating in the UK on behalf of a foreign intelligence agency, could obtain a warrant to access the private data of UK citizens.

At this point Laird became particular about what was happening to data created by peers and members of parliament.

Parliamentary data at risk

“Coming very near to home, a Prism corporation stores data from your Lordship’s House, according to a letter to John Hemming MP from the foreign secretary, in the Irish Republic and in the Netherlands,” said Laird.

Never a great fan of the Irish Republic, Laird told the House that Dublin’s protection against Prism was no more than “two tin cans and a bit of string”.

The Irish Republic does have equivalents to MI6 and MI5, albeit very small, but it has no GCHQ equivalent of any kind.

“Dublin is wide open to data theft,” Laird added.

Government denies responsibility

Laird is concerned about the government's persistent denial of responsibility for doing anything about Prism.

“Members of the Intelligence and Security Committee have told enquirers that Prism is a US issue,” he told the House.

“But if it runs in this country then that is not my opinion. It is a criminal offence according to Anthony May,” he said. 

Evidence that Prism is running in the UK

Laird said his additional evidence for saying that Prism is operational in the UK is the IPT’s judgement in the Liberty case.

The IPT concluded the GCHQ had accessed data from the NSA, which was unlawfully obtained in the UK using the Prism programme, thus acknowledging that Prism was running in the UK.

He told the House the IPT had been sitting on a complaint about Prism for some time.

“I hope [the IPT] will address it soon, and I hope that, in this session, Her Majesty's government will take all necessary steps to regularise their position and keep your Lordship’s House informed as much as possible,” he said. 

Unwarranted jurisdiction

The Lords is an old-fashioned place, far gentler in debate than the Commons. Good quotes catch the attention of the peers and heads were raised when Laird quoted from the American Declaration of Independence about whose laws ran in which country.

“In a paragraph from the parchment copy of the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, a document in which Ulster Scots people had a vital role [Laird is an Ulster Scot], there is a paragraph that goes thus:

“Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren, we have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us,” he said.

Laird referred to the US Senate abandoning the surveillance rights of the NSA under the Patriot Act to collect and store bulk records of telephone communications by US citizens.

Laird, who was limited to a seven-minute speech, did not address the fact that the US Freedom Act does not address the illegal surveillance being carried out in other countries using Prism.

This is an issue the UK government is believed to have lobbied the US president directly about, but was unsuccessful.

Public opposition against Prism

So far more than 110,000 Europeans and UK citizens have joined the anti-Prism civil case of the Austrian student and privacy activist Max Schrems, due for judgement on 24 June in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

More than 25,000 people in the UK have applied to Privacy International in the UK for details of the unlawful Prism data given to GCHQ prior to the data becoming subject to new rules in December 2014.

Is anyone listening?

During the responses to the Queen’s Speech, the government does not speak in answer to issues raised.

However, the government minister in the Lords on the matter, Bates, was seen to be taking extensive notes during Laird’s speech. Bates has been an assiduous avoider of addressing the fact that if Prism is operational in the UK, and the government has done nothing about it, the government may be guilty of covering up criminal activity.

When approached, none of the Prism companies were willing to comment.  

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