October 29, 2013 | Richard King in Sheffield Blog  | Comments (0)

Joint letter to Sheffield MPs on surveillance oversight

We wrote a joint letter to all Sheffield MPs seeking their views on this summer's mass-surveillance scandals. We asked them to attend a debate in Parliament and to represent our views on a range of related privacy and security issues.

Dear Sheffield MPs:

Rt Hon Mr David Blunkett

Mr Paul Blomfield

Rt Hon Mr Nick Clegg

Ms Meg Munn

Mr Clive Betts

Angela Smith

We have watched with increasing concern as revelations of privacy violations by the British government's intelligence services have been reported in the media over the last several months.

A cross-party trio of MPs - Tom Watson (Labour), Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrat) and Dominic Raab (Conservative) - have secured a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament at 13:30 on Thursday, on "Oversight of Intelligence and Security Services." We are writing to ask you to represent our views at this debate. There is also a briefing with civil society groups on Thursday morning at 10.30am in Committee Room 21, which we hope you will be able to attend even if you cannot join the debate.

1. Abuses of privacy

GCHQ has developed a range of mass surveillance programmes with astonishing scope and power. From the information published so far, it seems clear that the current laws regulating surveillance are inadequate for the digital age, and that significant reforms are needed. Industry insiders, including former Director General of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, have condemned mass surveillance as ineffective and dangerous.

TEMPORA is the codename under which GCHQ are tapping hundreds of undersea cables, buffering all trans-UK Internet traffic for three days and keeping the metadata relating to that traffic for 30 days. This is mass surveillance conducted with neither public debate nor effective oversight. It is clearly a breach of the Human Rights Act, if not technically, then in spirit.

EDGEHILL (and BULLRUN) - Through covert partnerships with tech companies, GCHQ (and the NSA) have inserted secret vulnerabilities into encryption software, undermining the trust on which the Internet is built. These weaknesses are discoverable and exploitable by actors other than these two government departments. We have no way of knowing who has taken advantage of these deliberate flaws. The Government has spent billions making the Internet less safe for everyone.

2. Parliamentary failures

Both the Foreign Secretary and the Intelligence & Security Committee have assured the public that our intelligence agencies work within a robust framework of oversight. Why did that oversight not prevent these abuses of privacy? How can the security services be made accountable to Parliament in a way that's also transparent to the public?

What is the real reason for the Communications Data Bill (the snoopers' charter) if the intelligence services already have capabilities beyond those for which they were asking?

The use of intercept evidence in court was blocked by the intelligence services because they didn't want us to find out the extent of their capabilities or the degree to which they have been helped to build them by UK communications companies. Now we know both these things will they withdraw their objections?

3. Debate (or the lack and suppression thereof)

Debates about the limits of surveillance and the oversight of intelligence agencies are being held in America and across Europe. Yet MPs here have seemed reluctant to take the initiative and discuss mass surveillance by UK intelligence services. So far the Government has only condemned the newspapers that have exposed the surveillance. It is time a substantial debate took place in the UK too.

The Government has been putting pressure on news organisations not to write about matters that are clearly in the public interest to report. The detention, interrogation and seizure of property from David Miranda was an abuse of anti-terrorism powers and an attack on press freedom. So is the continuing intimidation of the Guardian newspaper by politicians. Parliament should put a stop to this assault on journalistic activity - but we fear the reverse may be its intent. What effect will the new Royal Charter for Press Regulation have on the ability of the media to report on official abuses of power?

4. Our international standing

The Foreign Office campaigns internationally for privacy and freedom of expression online. Repressive governments worldwide look to the UK to excuse their behaviour. But whose government looks repressive now?

The tapping of the German Chancellor's mobile phone by the NSA demonstrates how inadequate checks and balances have led to mission creep. How does evesdropping on Angela Merkel's conversations tackle terrorism? Has GCHQ spied on the leaders of any of our allies?

Doing business with international partners has been made harder now they know all data travelling across UK infrastructure is being intercepted, and can be read, by the Government. How does the Government intend to mitigate this damage and reassure foreign interests that the UK is a safe and secure place to do business?


Intelligence agencies have significant powers to collect and analyse private information. It is Parliament's responsibility to ensure these are necessary, proportionate and that they are not abused.

The debate next Thursday will be the first substantial debate in Parliament about the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden. We would be grateful if you could attend the pre-debate briefing and raise our concerns during the debate. If that isn't possible, please will your raise our concerns with the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Intelligence and Security Committee?

We would also appreciate it if you could write back to us, care of this email address or by post, to inform us of your individual views on the above matters so that we can share them with other members of our group.

Thank you

Yours sincerely

Open Rights Group Sheffield

(12 individual signatures supplied.)





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