LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s spies are not knowingly carrying out illegal mass surveillance of the country’s citizens but laws governing their powers to intercept private communications need a massive overhaul, an independent assessment concluded on Tuesday.
The Independent Surveillance Review (ISR) was commissioned by Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister in the previous coalition government, to examine allegations by former U.S. security agency contractor Edward Snowden that British and U.S. spies were conducting vast monitoring programmes.
“We have seen no evidence that the British government knowingly acts illegally in intercepting private communications or that the ability to collect data in bulk is used by the government to provide it with a perpetual window into the private lives of British citizens,” the ISR concluded.
“On the other hand, we have seen evidence that the present legal framework authorising the interception of communications is unclear, has not kept pace with developments in communications technology, and does not serve either the government or members of the public satisfactorily.”
The ISR, whose members included former heads of Britain’s three spy agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, is the third major UK investigation into the surveillance work of the security services since Snowden’s 2013 revelations.
All have cleared the spies of any wrongdoing, but equally all said the laws governing their surveillance work needed to be made clearer. Last month, Britain’s independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws called the current framework fragmented, undemocratic and “in the long run intolerable”.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has promised to legislate to extend the powers of police and security agencies to monitor Britons’ communications and web activities in what opponents have dubbed a “snoopers’ charter,” arguing technological changes had diminished their capabilities.
Campaigners and civil rights groups have said Snowden’s disclosures about mass surveillance showed the authorities were trampling over people’s entitlement to privacy.
The ISR said that to have the confidence of the public, there needed to be a clear system of oversight with a bigger role for senior judges. Any new law should have to pass 10 tests, such as proportionality and transparency, before being agreed, it added.
David Omand, the former head of eavesdropping agency GCHQ, said “the cloud of unjustified suspicion” should now be lifted from the intelligence services, adding the report’s findings could allow Britain to lead the world by showing how it was possible to have security, privacy and freedom of speech.
Editing by Stephen Addison