The Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament (ISC) issued a lengthy report today on the surveillance practices of GCHQ. Invoking the now-standard Orwellian tactic of claiming that “bulk collection” is not “mass surveillance,” the Committee predictably cleared GCHQ of illegality, but it did announce that it has “serious concerns” over the agency’s lack of transparency and oversight. Citing the Snowden disclosures, it called for a significant overhaul of the legal framework governing electronic surveillance.
The report follows a British court decision last month finding that GCHQ did act illegally in spying without the transparency required by human rights laws. In light of the numerous official findings in the U.S., U.K. and the EU of illegality and the need for reform when it comes to electronic surveillance, it is hard to imagine how anyone could say that we’d have been better off if Edward Snowden had not blown the whistle on all of this and instead allowed us to remain ignorant of what these governments were doing in the dark. Given all these findings even from these governments, is there anyone who still thinks that way?
One of the most contested questions in the surveillance debate is whether mass collection stops terror attacks, as these agencies claim. A U.S. federal court, Obama’s own commission, an independent privacy board of the U.S. Government, and members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee have all categorically said no convincing evidence exists to show this is true.
But the 8 members of the UK Parliamentary Committee — one of whom is The Most Hon. The Marquess of Lothian — have concluded otherwise, claiming “that GCHQ’s bulk interception capability is used primarily to find patterns in, or characteristics of, online communications which indicate involvement in threats to national security.” The alleged basis for this conclusion is that “GCHQ have provided case studies to the Committee demonstrating the effectiveness of their bulk interception capabilities.” Here is the entirety of the discussion in this report of those successful “case studies”:
You’re just going to have to take their word for it: these mass surveillance programs were crucial in stopping these extremely dangerous terrorist plots. “Unfortunately,” you can’t know about any of this, but if those official asterisks don’t convince you, what will?
As for the Committee’s conclusion that GCHQ only engages in “bulk collection” (of electronic communications) but not “mass surveillance,” this is their primary argument:
GCHQ literally collects billions of emails and other electronic communications events every day. But don’t worry: they don’t read every single one of them. They only read “***%” of what they collect, or “fewer than *** of *** per cent of the items that transit the internet in one day.” So what’s the big concern?
The great irony of this is that the Committee here is marching under the banner of greater transparency, even as their principal arguments rest on asterisks of concealment. But this is how the largest western democracies generally function: they make highly dubious (often disproven) claims to justify radical powers, and then demand that you accept them on faith, because allowing you to see the evidence for yourself would endanger your life. That tactic, as much as anything, is a very compelling explanation for why Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers decide to do what they do.
Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA/AP