GCHQ spies had daily access to private emails

While GCHQ had the ability to read thousands of e-mails, spies looked at just 'a small proportion'. Picture: PA

While GCHQ had the ability to read thousands of e-mails, spies looked at just 'a small proportion'. Picture: PA

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SPIES at GCHQ had access to thousands of private e-mails every day through bulk interception methods, a parliamentary report has found.

A review by the Commons intelligence and security committee (ISC) into the impact of the former US spy Edward Snowden’s leaks found that the security services had the opportunity to snoop on a massive amount of private data, although they only looked at “a small proportion” of items.

The committee recommended a new single law to deal with access to information, claiming the current system was too complex, and questioned the lack of transparency in the activities of the security services.

MPs and peers on the committee also said there should be a new offence created for spies who abuse their positions.

The report has fuelled a row over whether GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 should be allowed greater access to people’s private data, with the Liberal Democrats blocking proposals by the Tories to push ahead with changes.

Civil liberties groups condemned the findings and Prime Minister David Cameron said he would bring in a new law to change the rules on spies.

The committee report noted: “Given the extent of targeting and filtering involved, it is evident that while GCHQ’s bulk interception capability may involve large numbers of e-maills, it does not equate to blanket surveillance, nor does it equate to indiscriminate surveillance.

“GCHQ is not collecting or reading everyone’s e-mails: they do not have the legal authority, the resources, or the technical capability to do so.”

Speaking on behalf of the committee, Labour MP Hazel Blears said: “There is a legitimate public expectation of openness and transparency in today’s society, and the security and intelligence agencies are not exempt from that.

“While we accept that they need to operate in secret if they are to be able to protect us from those who are plotting in secret to harm us, the government must make every effort to ensure that information is placed in the public domain when it is safe to do so.”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of rights campaign group Liberty, said: “The ISC has repeatedly shown itself as a simple mouthpiece for the spooks – so clueless and ineffective that it’s only thanks to Edward Snowden that it had the slightest clue of the agencies’ antics.

“The committee calls this report a landmark for ‘openness and transparency’ – but how do we trust agencies who have acted unlawfully, hacked the world’s largest sim card manufacturer and developed technologies capable of collecting our login details and passwords, manipulating our mobile devices and hacking our computers and webcams? No doubt it would be simpler if we went along with the spies’ motto of ‘no scrutiny for us, no privacy for you’ – but what an appalling deal for the British public.”

But in light of the report, Mr Cameron has announced that he will put the oversight of the security services’ use of bulk personal datasets on a statutory footing. In a written ministerial statement, he said: “The Intelligence Services Commissioner, the Rt Hon Sir Mark Waller, currently provides non-statutory oversight of the Security and Intelligence Agencies’ use of bulk personal datasets.

“Sir Mark has previously recommended that this be put on a statutory footing. The ISC also recommends this in their report.

“I can therefore announce today that I am issuing a direction to Sir Mark under section 59A of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) to put this into effect.”

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