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UK Home Sec stumbles while trying to justify blanket cyber-snooping

Theresa May tells committee: 'I want to be more open ... I'll write you a letter'

By Alexander J Martin, 13 Jan 2016

IPB UK Home Secretary Theresa May was grilled on Wednesday during the last evidence session held by the Parliamentary committee scrutinizing fresh powers proposed for GCHQ.

Crucially, she was unable to explain to the panel exactly why Blighty's intelligence services need the ability to intercept and retain millions of innocent Britons' data in bulk, as well carry out bulk hacking operations, which would be strongly authorised if draft law – the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) – is passed.

While the joint committee was pleased that GCHQ's bulk surveillance and hacking operations are being brought completely within parliamentary reign for the first time, having previously been effected through royal prerogative, the panel noted that the agency's sweeping powers have not yet been justified in operational terms.

The committee specifically asked the Home Secretary to make an operational case for GCHQ's abilities. May replied that she wished "to give a greater degree of transparency" to the intelligence agency's efforts, but instead of providing such transparency merely promised to "write in" with some more information. You can watch her performance here.

The draft law anchors the agency's legal right to intercept modern communications and tap into networking equipment to snoop on people, and retain the acquired data. It comes after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of GCHQ's spying operations, sparking outcry and a rethink by the British government. Ministers argue that the IPB is needed to snare terrorists and stamp out serious crime.

David Anderson QC – who is reviewing the UK's antiterror laws – had previously noted the "disquiet and suspicion among sections of the public in the UK and other countries, prompted in particular by allegations of bulk collection and analysis of data on a previously unreported scale."

His review was quoted by the committee, which noted that if an operational case for these powers were not made to Parliament, it would likely need to be made to the European Court of Human Rights, which may not be so sympathetic. ®

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