GCHQ Prism spying claims: Agency to report 'shortly'


Gordon Corera reports: "Tapping into the huge flows of internet data has become a top priority"

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Eavesdropping centre GCHQ will report to MPs within days over claims it secretly gathered intelligence from the world's largest internet companies.

The Guardian claims the UK's listening post accessed data on the internet activity of Britons obtained by a US spying programme called Prism.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee Committee (ISC) expects the report by Monday.

GCHQ said in a statement it operated to "a strict legal and policy framework".

US spies have been accused of tapping into servers of nine US internet giants including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google in a giant anti-terror sweep. All deny giving government agents access to servers.

The Guardian says it has obtained documents showing that Britain's secret listening post had access to the Prism system, set up by America's National Security Agency (NSA), since at least June 2010.

The newspaper said the Prism programme appeared to allow the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to circumvent the formal legal process required to obtain personal material, such as emails, photographs and videos, from internet companies based outside the UK.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in London for a Hyde Park rally calling for action to end hunger, said he knew nothing about Prism, adding: "I don't know any specifics but if there's a court order for companies to do things it's typical that they're obeyed."

Washington visit

ISC chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the parliamentary committee would be "receiving a full report from GCHQ very shortly and will decide what further action needs to be taken as soon as it receives that information".

Douglas Alexander: "These latest reports over the last 48 hours have raised very real public concerns"

Committee members will discuss the claims with US security officials during a planned visit to Washington next week.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has urged the foreign secretary - the minister with responsibility for GCHQ - to make a statement to Parliament on the reports.

He told the BBC: "I am calling on William Hague, as the foreign secretary, to come to the dispatch box of the House of Commons on Monday to set out the government's position and explain how the government will work with the ISC to address the very real public concerns that have emerged."

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera said intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the UK already had the ability to request information from internet and other companies through court orders and warrants.

"The question about Prism is whether it is simply an interface with the companies to then get hold of that information, or a kind of dragnet to gather vast amounts of information about everyone to sift through," our correspondent said.

He added: "Even more worryingly, was it a means of evading the legal oversight and legal restriction on how they operated?"

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said ministers were "going to have to say whether they knew about this and what they have and haven't authorised".

Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty: "[Spies] have to be accountable to Parliament and the law"

She told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme the big question was "have our agencies been circumventing the law by this nice little international exchange"?

She added: "The danger with this and other security policies is that governments say, 'well we'll obey our own laws that protect our citizens but we will then play fast and loose with the freedoms of others on the other side of the Atlantic or wherever'."

Former Labour MP Kim Howells, who chaired the ISC from 2008-2010, told Today he did not believe "for one minute" that intelligence service chiefs would be prepared to "venture into areas that are clearly illegal without, if you like, the permission of the government".

'Deeply concerning'

Conservative MP David Davis said the claims indicated the intelligence services had "much more information than they used to haveā€¦ namely our most intimate traffic".

That could include "a love email sent to your wife or mistress or girlfriend", he added.

Start Quote

Privacy is effectively a 20th century concept like the steam engine”

End Quote Richard Aldrich International security professor

"That sort of thing's now available through a mechanism which doesn't go through the British courts and that's pretty serious."

US President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has defended the Prism monitoring programme, saying it was closely overseen by Congress and the courts and that his administration had struck "the right balance" between security and privacy.

Richard Aldrich, a professor of international security at the University of Warwick, said he expected Mr Cameron to say "rather as President Obama has said, that you can't have your cake and eat it - you can't have 100% privacy and 100% security".

"What they're not going to say is, actually, we're very rapidly accelerating to a point where we're going to be in a transparent society," he told Today.

"Privacy is effectively a 20th century concept like the steam engine."

A spokesman for the agency, based in Cheltenham, said: "Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee."

Meanwhile, the BBC has learned that Twitter was invited to join the Prism programme last year, but rejected the approach from US authorities.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Counter terrorism?

    I didn't see this stop 9/11! Or 7/7! Or Boston or Woolwich!

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Terrorism is international. Information gathering has to be international. Because of terrrorism we can't have the luxury of national qualms and laws about terrorism prevention measures. What we can have though is strict laws about the use of gathered information, e.g. that information being utterly inadmissable as evidence by law, not judges opinion, in other than terrorism trials.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    To 6.Steve - you can have security without giving up privacy. There are lots of ways to increase security without harming privacy. A simple example is putting a lock on your door. Increased security and increased privacy.

    Ben Franklin had it right when he said "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety"

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Sabotage the state. Take back what is yours. If you love this world, take it back from those who would destroy it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Just another case of removing 'theory' from 'conspiracy theory'. The tin foil hatters seem more and more prescient as each day passes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Welcome to the information age! It was only a matter of time before something like this happened so it's not surprising really. Hopefully they'll use this data to help us out somehow. In my view, the government should be focusing these kind of resources on creating new jobs and helping young folk into work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Rubbish its not about our security from outside threats but all about the rich protecting themselves from the people they abuse namely us.
    Only a moron would forget how many lies our politicians constantly tell us as reasons for removing all privacy or rights. And we hear their pr department constantly claiming if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to be afraid of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    They have been caught out yet they hide behind the mask of legal framework and policy. All these lies hidden behind bureaucracy and the guise of democracy. And they wonder why the people distrust governments so much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Gordon Corera, Security Correspondent of BBC News, how in this day and age is it a revelation that GCHQ and Prism might be looking at your internet activity? Spying networks spy, get over it. If it intercepts and catches would-be terrorists and criminals at the expense of seeing a few internet searches you've made or emails you've sent, does it really bother you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    they have been watching and listening to us for years and years ,so why the big uproar ?
    they haven't hammered on your door yet !
    Their not interested if you download a few films or songs ,or if you look at the odd porn channel,
    It's national security that is at the heart of their actions .
    So unless your a threat to national security get out from under your bed and take that tin foil hat off

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    So, Government spy agencies actually spy on people, use all means at their disposal to gather information to aid this and the people do not know they are being spied upon. Huge shock!

    What did people think happens? That they ask you first: "excuse me, do you mind if I spy on you?" And only go on information people have declared they want made public?

    Astounding naivety around here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    They say a man with a spear can kill as well as a man with a gun in right circumstances (low-tech/high-tech)so all these measures will do will to be make "nutters" think rather than be all "sophisticated", I'll get some petrol and firebomb somewhere or I'll get myself an old banger of a car and crash it into the side of a train on a level crossing - undetectable events.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    25. jon: " If you've nothing to hide, you've NOTHING to fear".

    Not yet, perhaps. But we have no idea what mad ideas will have taken hold in our children's generation. See how easily "political correctness" - a poisonous Stalinist mind-control doctrine - has gone mainstream.

    Our duty is to prevent government from acquiring the right OR the ability to repress freedom of thought and speech.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    No government can call itself democratic if it or those it employs, acts in ways that undermines the very basis of democracy & freedom.

    In a democractic country, citizens are informed of such policys & given opportunity to agree/reject them via our representatives in government.

    Government secrecy, deceit & hidden agendas are REAL concerns of citizens & further undermine trust in government

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    This appears to be a surprise to our parliamentarians.

    Whilst it will be very easy for people to post comments about the government and the snoopers charter, my concern is who our intelligence agencies actually report to - our elected officials or the CIA?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Such surveillance did not help Lee Rigby, nor April Jones... so what ARE they looking for? Maybe it's just that they're catching up with the Orwellian 1984?

    Don't try to con the people with seeking out subversive or criminal activity... it's not taking root with the majority of supposedly free citizens!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The frightening thing is that, although we are blessed with a mature democratic process, the mechanisms for its complete overthrow are in place. Security agencies and governments now have access to everything we do and say. Even the cameras we Skype our friends with can be remotely controlled. Next step is a government, containing characters like Michael Gove, with the will to abuse their power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Re: 41 & 40
    At last, some common sense instead of the loonies posting all over the place. My father was in 'security' during second world war and I am unable to list the things our intelligence guys found out, but most folks need to wake up and smell the coffee. Slimeballs frequent our streets and other countries and they need monitored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I thought this was common knowledge? The yanks spied on us and we spied on the yanks in a mutually beneficial agreement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Be careful what you write in this comments section - you never know who is watching.


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