8 Apr 2014

Did UK spooks use NSA data to spy on Britons?

“British intelligence agencies do not circumvent domestic oversight regimes by receiving from US agencies intercept material about British citizens which could not lawfully be acquired by intercept in the UK”.

That’s one of the key conclusions in Tuesday’s report by Sir Anthony May, who as the interception of communications commissioner, oversees the activities of GCHQ and the UK’s other spy agencies.


On first blush it seems to blow a hole in the stories which emerged from leaks by Edward Snowden.

The former US intelligence contractor painted a picture of British spooks dipping into information gathered by America’s National Security Agency (NSA), and thereby getting hold of data British intelligence couldn’t legally gather in the UK. One example was the Dishfire system of text message surveillance, covered by this programme in January.

Revealed: UK and US spied on text messages of Brits

But there’s a catch: Sir Anthony’s remit is to look at how UK law is being applied. UK law covers access to UK databases. Sir Anthony is explicit that his remit does not cover foreign intelligence databases, and therefore, Sir Anthony’s report and its conclusions in fact do little to allay the main concern arising from Snowden’s leaks: that UK agencies are able to exploit foreign intelligence agencies’ stores of information to target Brits.

Read more: Dishfire: who knows what?

Sir Anthony has spent nine months putting together what is a very solid report. He voices concerns about police requests for information (which make up 87 per cent of the 514,000 for “communications data” – the who, where and when, but not the content of the message), and queries whether there is an “automatic resort” to making such requests, with “privacy unduly subordinated”.

Read more: why the row over spying is about human nature, not metadata

He also points out problems in how we count the number of requests (if police ask for details of calls made by two mobile phones, but do so in a single hit, is that one request or two?).

But on the larger question of GCHQ’s use of NSA data, and oversight of that behaviour, today’s report leaves many questions still unanswered.

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