BRITAIN’S electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ has been covertly gathering information from leading internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Skype through a secret US spy programme, it was reported yesterday.
A London-based newspaper said it had obtained documents showing GCHQ had access to the Prism system, set up by America’s National Security Agency (NSA), since at least June 2010.
The documents were said to show that the British agency, based at Cheltenham, had generated 197 intelligence reports through the system in the 12 months to May 2012 – a 137 per cent increase on the previous year.
The newspaper said that the Prism programme appeared to allow GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required to obtain personal material, such as e-mails, photographs and videos, from internet companies based outside the UK.
GCHQ refused to comment directly on the report, but in a statement insisted that it operated within a “strict legal and policy framework”.
The existence of the Prism system was disclosed in earlier newspaper reports in Britain and the US. It followed the disclosure of a secret court order requiring the US telecoms company Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of US customers.
Details of the Prism system were said to have been set out in a 41-page PowerPoint presentation prepared for senior analysts at the NSA, the biggest electronic eavesdropping organisation in the world.
It is said to give the NSA and the FBI easy access to the systems of nine of the world’s leading internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.
Prism was said to have been established in 2007 after changes to US surveillance laws passed under president George Bush and renewed last year under Barack Obama in order to provide in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information on foreigners overseas.
According to the leaked document, “special programmes for GCHQ exist for focused Prism processing” – suggesting the British agency may have been receiving material from a part of the programme specifically designed to meet its needs.
Last night, MPs expressed concern at the report. Senior Tory David Davis said it was difficult to reconcile GCHQ’s statement that it was subject to proper scrutiny with the fact that parliament had no knowledge of the programme whatsoever.
“In the absence of parliamentary knowledge, approval by a secretary of state is a process of authorisation, not a process of holding to account. Since nobody knew it was happening at all, there is no possibility of complaint,” he said. “No review will be conducted by the two commissioners – the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Intelligence Services Commissioner.
“Furthermore, since it is outside the normal remit of UK intelligence, it is hard to see how the Intelligence and Security Committee would have the resources or access to ensure the NSA behaved appropriately.”
Nick Pickles, of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said questions needed to be asked at the “highest levels” to establish whether British citizens had had their privacy breached “without adherence to the proper legal process or any suspicion of wrongdoing”.
The existence of the Prism programme was confirmed by the US director of national intelligence James Clapper, although he said newspaper reports contained “numerous inaccuracies”.
“Information collected under this programme is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats,” he said in a statement.
“The unauthorised disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal programme is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.”
The statement made no reference to GCHQ involvement in the programme.