My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has just been making in the House of Commons. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a Statement on the work of the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, its legal framework and recent publicity about it. As Foreign Secretary, I am responsible for the work of GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, under the overall authority of the Prime Minister. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is responsible for the work of the Security Service, MI5.
Over the past few days there have been a series of media disclosures of classified US documents relating to the collection of intelligence by US agencies, and questions about the role of GCHQ. The US Administration has begun a review into the circumstances of these leaks in conjunction with the Justice Department and the US intelligence community.
President Obama has been clear that US work in this area is fully overseen and authorised by Congress and relevant judicial bodies, and that his Administration is committed to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of its citizens.
The Government deplore the leaking of any classified information wherever it occurs. Such leaks can make the work of maintaining the security of our country and that of our allies more difficult. By providing a partial and potentially misleading picture, they give rise to public concerns.
It has been the policy of successive British Governments not to comment on the detail of intelligence operations. The House will therefore understand that I will not be drawn into confirming or denying any aspect of leaked information. I will be as informative as possible to give reassurance to the public and Parliament. We want the British people to have confidence in the work of our intelligence agencies and in their adherence to the law and our democratic values. But I also wish to be very clear that I will take great care in this Statement and in answering questions to say nothing that gives any clue or comfort to terrorists, criminals and foreign intelligence services as they seek to do harm to this country and its people.
Three issues have arisen in recent days which I wish to address. First, I will describe the action the Government are taking in response to recent events; secondly, I will set out how our intelligence agencies work in accordance with UK law and subject to democratic oversight; and thirdly, I will describe how the law is upheld with respect to intelligence co-operation with the United States, and deal with specific questions that have been raised about the operation of GCHQ.
First, in respect of the action we have taken, the Intelligence and Security Committee has already received some information from GCHQ, and will receive a full report tomorrow. My right honourable friend the Member for Kensington, who chairs the ISC, is travelling to the United States on a long-planned visit with the rest of the committee, including Members of this House. As he has said, the Committee will be free to decide what, if any, further action it should take in the light of that report. The Government and the agencies will co-operate fully with the committee, and I pay tribute to its members and their predecessors on all sides of both Houses.
Secondly, the ISC’s work is one part of the strong framework of democratic accountability and oversight that governs the use of secret intelligence in the United Kingdom, which successive Governments have worked to strengthen. At its heart are two Acts of Parliament: the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The Acts require GCHQ and the other agencies to seek authorisation for their operations from a Secretary of State, normally the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary.
As Foreign Secretary, I receive hundreds of operational proposals from SIS and GCHQ every year. The proposals are detailed. They set out the planned operation, the potential risks and the intended benefits of the intelligence. They include comprehensive legal advice describing the basis for the operation and comments from senior Foreign Office officials and lawyers. To intercept the content of any individual’s communications within the UK requires a warrant signed personally by me, by the Home Secretary or by another Secretary of State. This is no casual process. Every decision is based on extensive legal and policy advice. Warrants are legally required to be necessary, proportionate and carefully targeted, and we judge them on that basis.
Considerations of privacy are also at the forefront of our minds, as I believe they will have been in the minds of our predecessors. We take great care to balance individual privacy with our duty to safeguard the public and UK national security. These are often difficult and finely judged decisions, and we do not approve every proposal put before us by the agencies.
All the authorisations the Home Secretary and I do give are subject to independent review by an Intelligence Services Commissioner and an Interception of Communications Commissioner, both of whom must have held high judicial office and who report directly to the Prime Minister. They review the way that these decisions are made to ensure that they are fully compliant with the law. They have full access to all the information they need to carry out their responsibilities, and their reports are publicly available.
It is vital that we have this framework of democratic accountability and scrutiny. But I also have nothing but praise for the professionalism, dedication and integrity of the men and women of GCHQ. I know from my work with them how seriously they take their obligations under UK and international law. Indeed, in his most recent report the Intelligence Services Commissioner said: ‘it is my belief that… GCHQ staff conduct themselves with the highest levels of integrity and legal compliance’.
This combination of needing a warrant from one of the most senior members of the Government, decided on the basis of detailed legal advice, with such decisions reviewed by independent commissioners and implemented by agencies with strong legal and ethical frameworks, with the addition of parliamentary scrutiny by the ISC, whose powers are being increased, provides one of the strongest systems of checks and balances and democratic accountability for secret intelligence anywhere in the world.
Thirdly, I want to set out how UK law is upheld in respect of information received from the United States and to address the specific questions about the role of GCHQ. Since the 1940s GCHQ and its American equivalent, now the National Security Agency, have had a relationship that is unique in the world. This relationship has been and remains essential to the security of both nations. It has stopped many terrorist and espionage plots against this country, and has saved many lives. The basic principles by which that co-operation operates have not changed over time. Indeed, I wish to emphasise to the House that while we have experienced an extremely busy period in intelligence and diplomacy in the last three years, the arrangements for oversight and the general framework for exchanging information with the United States are the same as under previous Governments.
The growing and diffuse nature of threats from terrorists, criminals or espionage has only increased the importance of the intelligence relationship with the United States. This was particularly the case in the run-up to the Olympics. The House will not be surprised that our activity to counter terrorism intensified and rose to a peak in the summer of last year. It has been suggested that GCHQ uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that it cannot legally obtain in the UK. I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless. Any data obtained by us from the US involving UK nationals are subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and RIPA. Our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight and to scrutiny by the Intelligence and Security Committee. Our agencies practise and uphold UK laws at all times, even when dealing with information from outside the UK.
The combination of a robust legal framework, ministerial responsibility, scrutiny by the Intelligence Services Commissioners and parliamentary accountability through the Intelligence and Security Committee, should give a high level of confidence that the system works as intended. This does not mean that we do not have to work to strengthen public confidence wherever we can, while maintaining the secrecy necessary to intelligence work. We have strengthened the role of the ISC through the Justice and Security Act 2013 to include oversight of the agencies’ operations as well as their policy, administration and finances, and we have introduced the National Security Council so that intelligence is weighed and assessed alongside all other sources of information available to us as a Government, including diplomatic reporting and the insights of other government departments, and so that all this information is judged carefully in deciding the Government’s overall strategy and objectives.
There is no doubt that secret intelligence, including the work of GCHQ, is vital to our country. It enables us to detect threats against our country ranging from nuclear proliferation to cyberattack. Our agencies work to prevent serious and organised crime, and to protect our economy against those trying to steal intellectual property. They disrupt complex plots against our country, such as when individuals travel abroad to gain terrorist training and prepare attacks. They support the work of our Armed Forces overseas and help to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, and they work to help other countries lawfully to build the capacity and willingness to investigate and disrupt terrorists in their countries, before threats reach us within the United Kingdom. We should never forget that threats are launched at us secretly, that new weapons systems and tactics are developed secretly, and that countries or terrorist groups that plan attacks or operations against us do so in secrecy. So the methods we use to combat these threats must be secret, just as they must always be lawful.
If the citizens of this country could see the time and care taken in making these decisions, the carefully targeted nature of all our interventions and the strict controls in place to ensure that the law and our democratic values are upheld, and if they could witness the integrity and professionalism of the men and women of the intelligence agencies, who are among the very finest public servants our nation has, then I believe that they would be reassured by how we go about this difficult but essential work. The British people can be confident in the way that our agencies work to keep them safe, but would-be terrorists—those seeking to spy against this country or those who are the centre of organised crime—should be aware that this country has the capability and partnerships to protect its citizens against the full range of threats in the 21st century, and that we will always do so in accordance with our laws and values but with constant resolve and determination.”
My Lords, that concludes the statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place. It is important to start with some clarity over the precise subject that we are discussing today and we do so on this side against a background of agreement that I think is shared in both Houses, and across all sides of both Houses, about the values that are expressed in the Statement and the importance of protecting the United Kingdom and those values. It is clear that that is absolutely common ground.
The Guardian newspaper has revealed information obtained from Mr Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, that the National Security Agency in the United States has, so far as we understand it, collected huge quantities of information on telephone calls, e-mails and other online information. Some, but by no means all, of this surveillance has been focused on United States citizens. Much is said to have come from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype and other digital sources. It will therefore include surveillance of people who are not US citizens.
While the United States Administration have acknowledged the truth of the telephone surveillance, the technology companies have denied that any online information has been provided that was not covered by a federal court warrant before it was handed to the US Government.
I do not want, and it is not my place, to comment on United States policy on this matter or on the extent to which the Patriot Act makes such actions in the US legal. Those are matters for US politicians and US courts. However, I accept what the Foreign Secretary has said—that all the surveillance is directed not just against terrorists but against many different kinds of criminals, such as cybercriminals, paedophiles and people who wish to steal intellectual property.
We need to focus on the issues for the United Kingdom and to allay the plain anxieties of UK citizens and the UK media about the extent of UK involvement, its character and the legal basis for anything that has happened in our country. As Douglas Alexander put it on the “Today” programme this morning in response to Simon McCoy, “We need to be able to reassure the public ... there is an understandable level of public concern, given the reports in the newspapers over the last couple of days, and given how much we all rely on the intelligence agencies here in the United Kingdom to keep us safe”. There have been assertions and counterassertions. Today we begin the process of understanding what has happened from the United Kingdom’s point of view.
First, I will deal with what might be called the straw dogs. I want, for complete avoidance of doubt, to be clear about what we are not saying today. I do not doubt for one second that in the complex battle with terrorism or organised crime we need to collect data. It is an intrusive but entirely essential task for our security services. I will not accept from these Benches that we would ever willingly or knowingly put UK citizens or others at risk. We, too, will give no comfort or inadvertent assistance to terrorists, as the Foreign Secretary said.
Secondly, we have no doubt whatever that this means that there will be co-operation between friendly states trying to achieve the same objectives.
Thirdly, the balance between surveillance and privacy is a very hard one to strike. Perhaps it is impossible to get it entirely right as circumstances change. The Foreign Secretary said, in replying to questions on the Statement, that mistakes will always be made. I am not even saying that mistakes have been made, but this is obviously something that we will all want to keep in mind. Privacy will be compromised to some extent, whatever balance we agree. However, there has to be a proper balance if we regard the proper privacy of citizens as important—important not at the risk of their life and limb but important none the less in a democratic society where we enjoy private life within the law. The United Kingdom would never have settled for a Stasi-style state. This weekend, the Foreign Secretary described his approach as “necessary” and “proportionate”. That is a matter of the balance. We try to enshrine the balance as best we can in law, and I must return to this point in seeking clarification from the Minister. We need better to understand the terms that the Foreign Secretary has used.
Fourthly, every Minister who has dealt with the intelligence services, including GCHQ—and I am proud to have been one of them—knows that we are dealing with people of the greatest integrity, and it is not any part of my submission to your Lordships that we have grounds for suspicion. They are excellent as a group and are outstanding in their service to the United Kingdom. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, made essentially the same point on television over the weekend, and it is a view that I share.
Fifthly, I hear the expression that law-abiding British citizens have “nothing to fear”. We have probably all used that kind of phrase on one occasion or another, but it often conceals more than it reveals. Of course those acting within the law should not fear oversight but most of us also value our privacy, at least to some extent, and can value it without wishing to commit any acts of terrorism. I am never happy about the extent to which search engines inspect my tastes, purchases, and whereabouts and so on in pursuit of business, even when I do not want them to. Prism is therefore a concern for honest reasons, not dishonest ones. How we use it or perhaps contribute to it is also a concern for honest reasons, not dishonest ones.
On the “Today” programme this morning, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that no access surveillance data of the kinds that I have described could be collected without explicit ministerial approval. I think that that was reflected in the Statement but I want to check. As I understand it, Sir Malcolm was referring either to material that the UK’s intelligence agencies may wish to collect for themselves or to material collected by a foreign agency that the intelligence services here might wish to access. He said, “The law is actually quite clear. If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of e-mails about people living in the UK then they actually have to get lawful authority. Normally that means ministerial authority”. I understand that the foreign agency might offer material out of mutual friendship and concern for the well-being of our or other citizens, and I repeat that this has an unavoidable impact on privacy but is very important for our safety. However, Sir Malcolm’s point was that there is an explicit law on permissions. He was not making the point that we should never try to catch terrorists by such means—quite the contrary.
Therefore, none of my questions is intended to help any terrorist. I have thought carefully about these questions, which in the past I would have been able to answer or would have been inclined to say I could not answer before your Lordships in this House for security reasons. These questions are not hostile; rather, they are exploratory. I ask them against the clear background of saying that we want the criminals whose attacks may be directed towards this country and who are never constrained by the question of any international border to be prevented from causing us harm and brought to justice.
How many instances of data acquisition by our intelligence services have taken place in the past three years in the ways that have been alleged by the Guardian? What precisely is the legal framework, what are the procedures and what are the protocols under which a United Kingdom Minister could ask for information from American agencies?
Did Ministers authorise each and every one of these applications for data? I suspect that there will be a yes or no answer. The assurance of legality can be made clear today by answering that question. It will not aid a terrorist in any respect to know the answer but it should be a source of reassurance to honest, law-abiding citizens of the UK.
Would it be lawful for GCHQ to request information from Prism and for this to fall outside the scrutiny of any UK Act, including the Intelligence Services Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act? Mr Hague appears to have said in the Statement that that could not happen, but I would welcome confirmation.
What is the status of the request to search United States data? Would that be covered by a proper warrant just as would requests to obtain that information in this country?
Did the Intelligence Services Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner have oversight of the process that they exercised? I do not mean “Do they?” in a general sense but “Did they in these circumstances?”.
Will the Foreign Secretary be willing to discuss all these matters in detail in an appropriately confidential meeting of the Intelligence and Security Committee? Will the ISC be put in a position where it can add to the assurance that the public seeks without disclosing anything at all that may assist anybody who intends us harm? Will the Foreign Secretary set out for Parliament any concerns that he may have about the surveillance of United Kingdom citizens, or, if he has none, will he explain how he reaches a conclusion on that matter? He cannot regard this as something within the reach of the “nothing to fear” answer. How rapidly could the Government respond to these deeper questions which have been brought to the surface by these events?
I ask these questions in exactly the sense in which I started when responding to the Statement. We are as committed as anybody to the effectiveness of an intelligence service which, from experience, I know is among the best in the world, operated by the best civil servants this country could hope to have. The public are not often exposed to the nature of the service’s work—this is perhaps a necessary fact about that kind of work. However, some clarity on these questions will give real reassurance.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the general support he has given the Government and for his very constructive remarks on the necessary and excellent role of our agencies. He will understand that I cannot give him precise answers on some of the questions that he asked. As the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement, a preliminary report has already gone to the Intelligence and Security Committee, a fuller report will go to it and the committee will have the opportunity to examine the Foreign Secretary and a great many others on the reports that have come out. I hope that the noble Lord will allow me to leave it at that.
I simply add that the transmission of global communications is part of the context in which we all have to operate, as is the transmission of human movement. Someone may have been in London yesterday, is in Lagos today and could be in Aleppo in three days’ time. That person might be a citizen of two or three countries, one of which might be the UK. That is part of the problem. When the noble Lord says “within the UK”, what is within the UK is a great deal less clear than it was a few years ago. For all I know, the server which might hold the noble Lord’s private information from his Facebook account could be in Washington state—possibly even in southern China. Therefore, we are moving away from the ability to handle some of these issues entirely within the framework of the single nation state.
There are some extremely large questions here on data-sharing and data protection, some of which we will have to return to. Clearly data protection has to be on a European and global scale and cannot be purely domestic. That is the context in which we face all these challenges. We need different ways of attempting to keep up with criminals, terrorists and others from those we see in television series about the 1930s and 1920s, when detectives and security agencies steamed open the envelopes of letters, which were the main means of communication in those days.
My Lords, do we not now face a much more dangerous world in which we know that certain organisations are determined to commit acts of terror against this country in a more positive and direct way than we have perhaps faced before? Combine that with an explosion in systems of communication which did not exist before, and the graphic illustration that the Minister just gave about London, Lagos and Aleppo, and there is a globalisation and dependence on other countries for intelligence. The front line in the defence of our country is intelligence. From my previous experience, I pay tribute—as has already been done—to those who serve in our intelligence agencies. However, the challenges they now face are very real, and protecting the rule of law and following the orders under which they operate against the threats that our country faces involve very high standards indeed.
The real core of this Statement is that we need the ISC. We have to have some impartial outside body, and it will not surprise the Minister when I say that we must preserve the credibility of the ISC. Sir Malcolm Rifkind and his colleagues, including two Members of this House, face a challenging job. A very serious accusation has been made and we must get to the truth about it. I have absolutely no criticism of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and have fortunately been long enough out of post. In preserving that credibility, we have to watch that we do not appoint people who have just had ministerial responsibility for the areas that they may be asked to investigate. A continual challenge is ensuring that we have experienced people who can contribute to what is now a very important job for the ISC.
I thank the noble Lord for those comments. I am not sure that in some ways we are in a more dangerous world than we were in 100 or more years ago when international anarchist groups succeeded in assassinating the heads of state of two or three European countries. However, he is absolutely right about the explosion of communications and the speed of communications. The general increase in the educated population of the world means that, when you are looking for terrorist groups, you are not able to look for a small group within each city but are looking at a much larger number of possible suspects. That is why agencies have to adapt the way they look at these sources.
I understand extremely well that the Minister cannot at this stage tell us very much, but I hope that he can at least confirm what appears to be the case—that the 197 Prism reports said to have been passed on to GCHQ last year all relate to communications data and not to the contents of any intercepted communication. If he can give us that confirmation—I hope he can and can see no reason why he should not if it be the case—it would be much less serious and would allay certain anxieties that otherwise we must all feel. If it is the case that it relates solely to communications data, will he say who gave the authorisation under Section 21 of RIPA, which is the relevant section, not Chapter 1, and whether the authorisation was specific to this case or was a general authorisation?
The noble and learned Lord would like me to go into specifics on specific cases, and I am going to resist that for reasons he will fully understand, while recognising the importance of the distinction made between communications data and the details of communications, which is one that we all recognise.
My Lords, first, in all humility, I advise the Minister that it would be useful to distinguish between published opinion and public opinion. He may never be able to reassure some elements of published opinion that the security services are not being overzealous until there is some great incident, and it will then accuse the security services of not having done enough. That is the experience.
Secondly, to reassure public opinion, will he confirm that the regulatory legal framework is among the best, if not the strongest, among western democracies, not only the legal framework he mentioned of the Intelligence Services Act and RIPA but ministerial oversight, independent scrutiny and parliamentary accountability through the ISC? I tell him from my own interests—I declare them as registered—not only as a former Home Secretary but in the private sector and the academic sector that there is astonishment among many colleagues in Europe and the western democracies at just how far we go to ensure that oversight.
Will the Minister confirm the simple point that international terrorism is by definition international, that the means of communication in the world wide web is by definition worldwide and that therefore, if we are to protect the lives of the citizens of this country, we have to operate on an international basis? Almost every single plot that has threatened the public, many of which they have not heard about, has involved at least two or three countries, and in some cases more than 20. Therefore, within the legal framework, the security services, operating and sharing information on counterterrorism with our close allies throughout the world, have saved literally thousands of lives in this country over the past 15 years. The whole House should note that and congratulate our security services on it.
I thank the noble Lord for those very helpful words. However, it is not only all terrorism that is by definition international. When I was covering the Home Office brief and spent some time with the West Yorkshire Police I came to the conclusion that all serious organised crime is now international. We therefore operate in a world in which co-operation, not just with the United States but with our European partners and others, is nevertheless essential in order to combat this global phenomenon—and, of course, some of those with whom we have to co-operate are not the easiest of partners. The noble Lord will know well that some of the websites which those who have been radicalised in this country have had access to are operated out of very distant countries.
The difference between public opinion and published opinion is, of course, that public opinion very often wants different and contradictory things. The public want security and privacy, they want the state off their backs, but at the same time they want the state to protect them. That is part of what politicians have to deal with. It is one of the reasons why referendums are not always a terribly good idea, because the way public opinion flies depends on which week the referendum is held. Attitudes to privacy among the young are much more relaxed than among the old. Whether as the young get older they become more concerned about privacy is something we shall slowly discover as we go on.
My Lords, the Foreign Secretary’s Statement will have gone far to reassure people that our very high standards of oversight are being upheld. However, the problem for people is not so much about our own legal standards and standards of oversight, but what happens internationally, in other countries, and whether their standards are as high. In light of that, will my noble friend tell us what attention Her Majesty’s Government are giving, in the borderless cyberworld, not just to the full implementation of the 2006 data retention directive, but also to aspiring to have high common standards as we go forward into negotiations with the United States on the transatlantic treaty? Will that subject be covered in those talks?
My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I understand the full transition to cloud computing. A very small number of people in this House understand it, and I run to them from time to time to ask for their advice. Certainly, we will find that the new global standards on attempts to regulate cloud computing will be thrashed out in negotiations between the United States and the European Union in the context of the transatlantic negotiations. So far we are a long way from discovering how those will turn out. I read in the New York Times the other day that one of the differences across the Atlantic is that in the United States most people distrust the state much more than they distrust companies, whereas in Europe more people trust the state and distrust companies. That raises implications for what sort of regulation people really want. Clearly there will be some extremely difficult negotiations, first on the EU data protection directive, and then within the transatlantic negotiations.
My Lords, in quoting the words of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the security committee, the Minister referred to a statement by him which said that normally only information which had been the subject of specific ministerial request would be used. The word “normally” suggests to me that there may be exceptional circumstances. Can the Minister, without embarrassment, suggest the sort of situation in which that might operate? It is a constructive and relevant question, which I am sure the House would wish to have an answer to, if possible.
The noble Lord tempts me to go down a lane which I think that I would prefer not to go down. It is, of course, the case that, in moments of absolute crisis, a short cut may possibly be taken, but this country attempts in all circumstances to go through the correct procedures and hold to the legal framework.
Would my noble friend agree that one of the duties of the security services is to obtain relevant information in accordance with the constraints imposed by British law? Would he further agree that there is absolutely no evidence that GCHQ has deliberately circumvented British law to obtain information that might be available to the American authorities under quite different American law? Thirdly, would he agree that it is to be hoped that the free flow of important information between the United Kingdom’s security services and the Americans will continue, particularly if that information indicates that lives might be saved if the information is acted on? Would he further agree that it would be completely unacceptable for the British authorities to ignore information coming from abroad, wherever it comes from, if acting on that information might save lives?
I can confirm most of the questions asked by the noble Lord, but I had better not go into too much detail. An enormous amount of information is flowing into the United Kingdom on any day of the week from a range of other intelligence services. Naturally, we trust the Americans far more than we trust some other countries. But one has to listen to countries that may in many ways be hostile to the United Kingdom but with which we may share some real security interests. That is all part of the very delicate world in which we live and have to operate. None of this is easy, but maintaining British security and, at the same time, maintaining an open society is our underlying intention.
Would the Minister agree that it is somewhat ironic that the so-called whistleblower chose Hong Kong, which is close to and alongside China, as the place to make this statement, bearing in mind its systematic control of the internet within its own country, the way in which it looks intrusively at its own population, and the fact that it has probably been in among the computers of a large number of us here, let alone organisations in this country?
My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that at least one of the organisations with oversight over the security services would have it drawn to their attention if we started to get a large flow of communications content information from the United States, as opposed to communications data?
My Lords, lawyers have come in at a very early stage in this. I was briefed by FCO lawyers as well as by FCO officials this morning. Oversight is a continuing process, so any unusual change in pattern would naturally feed up towards the scrutiny and accountability process.
My Lords, I apologise for arriving during the reading of this Statement but, in my defence, I was late because I was listening to it from the horse’s mouth, from the Foreign Secretary in another place.
In the USA, it would seem that politicians have been asleep at the wheel while their security and intelligence services have helped themselves to anyone’s private data without any meaningful oversight. Happily, in this county we have much better checks and balances on our security services, and the Government to their credit have been much more robust in resisting calls for security at any cost from the proponents of the disproportionate and unnecessary communications data Bill, which was accurately given the soubriquet the “snoopers’ charter”.
My question has been asked already today, but I ask my noble friend to try to address it. On the 197 occasions in the past year when GCHQ has stated that it obtained data from the Prism system in the States, was the data acquisition authorised by a Minister on each occasion? That is not about the content or the cases involved but simply about the process and legality.
My Lords, that is one of the issues which will be investigated by the ISC. The noble Lord and I may differ on what we think about the history and current role of the US agencies, but there is quite a large issue about US companies—Google and others—which we have assumed to be extremely benevolent but which are collecting a great deal of personal information on a very large number of people. That raises long-term issues which we will, no doubt, have to debate in future Sessions along with both domestic and international regulations to cope with them.