Leader: GCHQ’s use of Prism system needs scrutiny

Facebook is among the tech companies implicated in the PRISM searches. Picture: Getty
Facebook is among the tech companies implicated in the PRISM searches. Picture: Getty
Share this article
1
Have your say

YOU may not have been familiar with an intelligence project with the Bond-like codename of Prism, but it is a safe bet it is about to become a major political scandal on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the words of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence in the US: “Information collected under this programme is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

Unfortunately, Prism also ­involves both America’s National Security Agency and – it now appears from published American documents – our own GCHQ in secretly accessing private messages transmitted on the world’s major internet companies, ­including Google and Facebook.

And doing so – seemingly – without those companies ­knowing. Big Brother has indeed been watching you.

According to the security agencies Prism is aimed specifically at accessing traffic from non-US ­citizens passing through American internet companies. That would be within the scope of US law, while snooping on US citizens is not. It remains to be seen if America’s spooks kept to the letter of the law. However, ­matters are different on this side of the Atlantic. The obvious question arises: by accessing the US-based Prism, has GCHQ been able to circumvent British legal rules limiting its right to see to private emails of UK citizens without due authorisation?

Prism raises ethical and ­political questions that must be answered immediately. Prima facie, Prism appears to give the security agencies direct access to the correspondence of millions of domestic UK internet users – access that goes far beyond the legitimate need to counter terrorist plots. GCHQ has issued a statement saying it takes seriously the need to abide by the law.

Yet we only have to remember the number of times the courts have struck down loosely-­worded anti-terror legislation to realise that both government and the security agencies have an elastic appreciation of what ­constitutes due process.

Nor can the internet companies be let off the hook. Google, Facebook and Apple have all ­instantly denied that they ­allowed Prism “direct access” to their servers. It remains to be seen if this is mere semantics or a ­genuine denial, as “direct access” can have many meanings.

There is no doubt that groups such as al-Qaeda use the internet for propaganda, communications and money laundering. No one denies the security agencies the right to access the internet to combat such activity, or to gather intelligence.

But in a free society that right must be governed by due legal process. If GCHQ is found to have broken or bent the law by using Prism it will constitute not only a massive breach of public trust.

It will make any future protests regarding China’s naked attempts to control the internet look ­pathetically hypocritical.

Better to jaw-jaw Mr Russell

MEMBERS of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), have voted for a campaign “of action” – including potentially strikes – in protest over the workloads resulting from the introduction of the new Curriculum for Excellence. Protests wont start until next December, which should give both sides, teachers and Scottish Government, a chance for discussions. No one, least of all school pupils, will gain by a prolonged ­disruption in the classrooms.

However, it is only right that Mike Russell, the Scottish Education Secretary, should respect the degree of frustration being felt in the teaching profession. The ­Scottish Government has long ­argued that teachers supported the new curriculum.

But that is not the same thing as ignoring the constant pleas from the ­classroom to introduce ­reform in a planned way and – just as ­important – to provide the ­resources to make it work effectively. The new curriculum is less a list of academic topics to be studied and more a new approach to teaching and learning.

There is no doubt that it required more input from teachers and much more preparation and administration. Plus it has been introduced at a time of stringent local authority cutbacks.

Now might be the time for Mr Russell to show some statesmanship and accept that teachers have a genuine grievance. Better to jaw-jaw than war-war.

But equally, the decision of the EIS also to threaten industrial action over pension reform – something reserved to Westminster – is not helpful. Better tactics, perhaps, to resolve the Curriculum for ­Excellence issue and maintain a common front between the EIS and Hollyrood in any representations to the UK Treasury.