6 Feb 2015

Spying: who’s got your back?

Today’s ruling has hit a nerve at GCHQ, the government’s listening post. The spies insist they don’t engage in mass surveillance, and that they have strict rules governing how they work. That’s not the point: those rules have to be seen to be strict.

And that goes to the heart of a vital (but boring) aspect of the post-Snowden debate: oversight.

Basically it works like this: GCHQ exists to spy on people. But they reassure us by pointing out that they have three bunches of people keeping an eye on what they do (the intelligence and security committee, the surveillance commissioners and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal).

From the beginning there’s been concern over how up-to-snuff this oversight regime is. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the ISC, seemed too eager too often to leap to the spies’ defence (not helped by the revelation that when the spy chiefs appeared before his committee they were tipped off about some of the questions in advance).

An Aerial View of GCHQ

What about the surveillance commissioners? It turned out that Sir Anthony May, the only one who gives press conferences, has no power to oversee the most contentious GCHQ behaviour (access to foreign spies’ databases). The commissioner who looks after that aspect of spying, Sir Mark Waller, has declined to respond to interview requests.

And today we have the Investigatory Powers Tribunal saying that because there was insufficient scrutiny around the rules under which GCHQ was operating, the agency’s behaviour was illegal. GCHQ may well argue that its rules were correct, but the fact is the rules weren’t transparent enough to be legal.

Fundamentally, the people who are supposed to be protecting our privacy from the spies are mostly former judges and politicians. Transparency doesn’t appear high on their list. This problem of “establishment rules” which has dogged attempts to launch a public inquiry into historic child abuse. I see echoes of the same issue in the surveillance debate.

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One reader comment

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Geoff,

    Yeah……three levels of oversight……all of them a waste of time and money.

    Did a bang-up job with “intelligence” on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq didn’t they? Funny too how they’ve failed to provide evidence of squadrons of Russian tanks crossing into Ukraine.

    They must have had their nose too close to the anal canal of Washington and Langley.

    It’s over a generation since former “spycatcher” (who never caught a spy) Peter Wright revealed the “intelligence” services were “up to their necks” (his words, not mine) in treason against the democratically elected government of Harold Wilson. Of course nothing was done about it then or since.

    The fact is GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are a gang of professionally paranoid snoopers who’d sell their own mothers if it meant promotion.

    One Julian Assange or Ed Snowden is worth a thousand of them. The difference being that both of those men have actually tried to do some good by exposing what the snoopers ACTUALLY do. You could ask Angela Merkel’s opinion too.

    And don’t think for a moment they don’t have a file on YOU. After all, you work in mainstream media, a fertile recruiting ground for the paranoid nutters. Ask Jon Snow about their failed attempt to recruit him. Then ask yourself who DID they recruit.

    The “intelligence services”?…….It would be a good idea if they actually had any genuine intelligence and patriotism instead of knuckling their foreheads to the reactionary loonies who run this country.

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