How GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are dodging democratic scrutiny over ‘bulk personal datasets’

GCHQ model, Sept 2006, Matt Crypto

The British have been infringing on freedom a lot longer than their cousins across the Atlantic – so perhaps it is not surprising that we do it better.

Even as the Yanks roll back the NSA’s powers to sift through American phone records the resurgent Tory government in Britain is using its new majority to tackle freedom through the Snooper’s Charter and Extremism Bill – the latter of which does not even require a sinister sounding nickname.

Fortunately in the spirit of bringing home the revolution Privacy International, a British charity with a global remit, is challenging the spooks’ abilities to put together “bulk personal datasets” with little or no legal oversight.

Such powers only became known in March with the publication of a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which noted that these collections were only authorised implicitly by other powers granted to spies. And even the committee, which is hardly unsympathetic to the “national security” argument for snooping, had some concerns to raise:

  • “Until the publication of this report, the capability was not publicly acknowledged, and there had been no public or parliamentary consideration of the related privacy considerations and safeguards.
  • “The legislation does not set out any restrictions on the acquisition, storage, retention, sharing and destruction of bulk personal datasets, and no legal penalties exist for misuse of this information.
  • “Access to the datasets – which may include significant quantities of personal information about British citizens – is authorised internally within the agencies without ministerial approval.”

What data goodies are contained in such collections is unstated in the report, though they can contain “hundreds to millions” of records. As such it is understandable that Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, is rather upset at the practice.

“Secretly ordering companies to hand over their records in bulk, to be data-mined at will, without independent sign off or oversight, is a loophole in the law the size of a double-decker bus,” he said.

“The use of these databases, some volunteered, some stolen, some obtained by bribery or coercion, has already been abused, and will continue to be, until the practice is overhauled, and proper protections put in place.”

The Home Office, whose secretary Theresa “Jackboot” May has been at the forefront of stamping on British freedom, maintains that such powers are necessary to stop the terrorists slaughtering us all, and that there is appropriate oversight – a view which appears naïve, careless or malignant.

At least the Brits can take comfort from the fact that unlike the Yanks we do not endow our snooping bills with names as Orwellian as the Patriot Act and the Freedom Act. It is a shame we cannot say the same for their contents.

Header Image – GCHQ Model, September 2006 by Matt Crypto

Jimmy Nicholls

Jimmy Nicholls

Writer on Westminster, free speech, religion and so forth. Contact jimmy.nicholls@rightdishonourable.com

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