UK's surveillance laws need overhaul, says former defence secretary

Lord King urges ministers to review legislation in wake of Edward Snowden leaks to keep pace with changes in communications

Laws used by Britain’s spy agencies to justify mass surveillance and interception techniques must be reviewed to ensure they have kept pace with “incredible changes” in communications, one of the country’s foremost intelligence experts has said.

Lord King, the former Conservative defence secretary who also chaired the cross-party intelligence and security committee (ISC) when it was established, added that the current committee under Sir Malcolm Rifkind had come out too quickly to back GCHQ following revelations about industrial-scale snooping.

King said the public needed to be completely reassured that “huge amounts of interceptions” undertaken by GCHQ had been “properly authorised under the normal standard arrangements”. But he also suggested the laws giving them those powers could be out of date and need to be looked at again.

The principal piece of legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), has been in force since 2000. “Back in 2001 people were not using email in the way they are now,” said King. “As an MP at that time, I hardly received any emails at all. Now they receive hundreds.

“It is incredible to think how things have changed in the cyber world. Now you have the whole world of Twitter and Facebook, and all the other paraphernalia. Legislation has to keep up to date with all these things and the way people use them. I think it is most important that all the legislation in this area is under regular review.”

Ripa has been used by British intelligence to provide legal authority for the Tempora programme, which gives GCHQ the ability to tap into vast amounts of data carried by undersea internet cables. In theory, GCHQ can store 21 petabytes of information a day – equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours. Privacy campaigners argue that Ripa was never intended to issue warrants that would justify such large-scale trawls.

Speaking to the Guardian, King said the ISC had a vital role working as a bulwark against the intelligence services overreaching themselves. The peer chaired the watchdog for seven years between 1994 and 2001 and is the longest serving head of the committee.

King said the decision by the Rifkind-led committee to swiftly endorse the work of GCHQ was “unfortunate” because the endorsement came while new disclosures from files leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were still being published by the Guardian and other newspapers around the world.

“I think their response was pretty quick,” said King, a former Northern Ireland secretary. “It came at a time when revelations were still coming out. It is very important the ISC maintains public confidence as a scrutiny committee.”

King argued that the ISC should be chaired by a member of the opposition. Rifkind is a former Tory foreign secretary – the cabinet post that has ultimate responsibility for GCHQ.

“This is no criticism of Malcolm Rifkind,” said …read more  

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