Last summer, Edward Snowden revealed that the scale of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) surveillance was beyond what anyone had previously imagined. His leaked documents demonstrate that the UK’s Tempora programme had the most comprehensive access to internet communications and metadata of any Five Eyes country (an intelligence alliance comprised of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), as well as handling around 600m ‘telephone events’ a day by 2012. The widespread outrage at the biggest intelligence leak in a generation pressured an embarrassed government into scrutinizing the largely unchecked, extensive powers of the intelligence agencies. 

A defensive William Hague asserted in the wake of the allegations that ‘legal framework is strong, ministerial oversight is strong. GCHQ staff conduct themselves with the highest levels of integrity and legal compliance’. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Conservative MP for Kensington, is in charge of the governmental processes of oversight, as chair of the government’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The Committee has been criticized by some for its public vindication of GCHQ’s methods: a more comprehensive review is ongoing, but a preliminary report stated confidently that “GCHQ has not circumvented or attempted to circumvent UK law”.


Sir Malcolm describes the current focus of the ISC (Intelligence and Security Committee); “what we call our privacy and security review, looking at the whole balance you should have in a free society between privacy of the citizen… and how you balance that with what we also want: to avoid being blown up by terrorists. Most people realize you have to have a slight balance. It’s rather like having CCTV cameras in the high street. Its an intrusion, but its one we can live with.”

The ‘war on terror’ , an umbrella term which has definitively shaped the course of 21st century international relations, has been similarly fundamental in expanding the remit of intelligence agencies. He goes on to argue for the legitimacy of GCHQ on the grounds that, “most terrorists are not foreigners, but people born and bred here. So we’re trying to get the needles from the haystack. And that’s not easy, it’s a big challenge.”

I would agree with Rifkind that “people want to feel they’re protected from terrorist and criminal activity”; however, the continued confidence in GCHQ relies upon key public figures such as Rifkind creating a culture of fear centred around terrorism, or, in the words of a former member of the Bush administration, “sustained hysteria”. As a result of this, “[the public] understand that the intelligence agencies have to have tools to do the job.”

The Intelligence and Security Committee is an important means of salvaging the credibility of GCHQ by reassuring the public that the intelligence agencies are subject to oversight and regulation, and are accountable in the case of illegal practises: “The committee I’m part of can go to M16, M15, GCHQ, look at their files. If they act outside of an Act of Parliament, they would be committing a crime.”

The claim for effective and impartial oversight sits uneasily with George Howarth’s (Labour MP and member of the ISC) admission in parliament that GCHQ’s usage of the US Prism programme was only seriously investigated after it was exposed in The Guardian. Given that in a speech given later at Wadham, Rifkind asserts that he is “strongly of the view that more public debate about intelligence and the role of our Intelligence Agencies is vital in Britain”, I ask him whether he thinks that there would have been any such debate without Snowden’s revelations, and, further, (if Snowden did not hold GCHQ and NSA to the scrutiny that the ISC did not). His answer categorically condemns Snowden: “In a modern democracy, you want to share everything with the public that can be properly shared. When you’re dealing with intelligence agencies there’s obviously a big area that can’t be shared. You cannot give information to the British public without it being available to the terrorists. He downloaded over 1 million top secret documents. He couldn’t possibly have read more than a tiny number of them; because of his background he could only have understood some of them, but he handed them all over to the press. Now that’s not whistleblowing, that is a political act. He was in a position of trust and I believe that was a very foolish, stupid and idiotic thing to do.”

When I try again to press him on whether he thinks there was any value in raising consciousness about the extent of surveillance, it is clear that he believes it would have been better if the general public remained ignorant: “We must accept that in our modern democracy, intelligence agencies must sometimes have the right to read people’s emails or listen to people’s telephone calls. The intelligence agencies were doing things that people didn’t know about, but I would have been very worried if that hadn’t been the case.” 

The ISC’s capacity for oversight does however rely upon the strength of current legislation; surveillance activity may comply with the law, but acts such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Justice and Security Act have been widely criticized.The right to read people’s emails or record telephone calls falls under the legal category of interception: as Sir Malcolm rightly points out to me, a warrant for listening to telephone calls must be approved by a secretary of state. However, the collection of metadata or communications data (i.e recording the time, length of transmission and location, but not the content, of communications) can be authorized by a number of authorities, including HMRC, the FSA, and local police forces, which Rifkind claims does require “proper authority, just not from the secretary of state. Collection of such data is entirely necessary; without it, you could not deal with modern criminals.” 

Rifkind also asserts that “collection of communications data is limited”. A recent report by Justice, a human rights organization, found that, in total, there have been close to three million decisions taken by public bodies under RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) in the last decade. Of the decisions we do know about, fewer than 5,000 (about 0.16 per cent) were approved by a judge. Similarly, in the last decade, the main complaints body under RIPA, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, has upheld just 10 out of 1,100 complaints.

Nobody would deny that surveillance is a necessary activity for law enforcement and national security. But it is dangerous to normalize intrusive intelligence gathering on such an immense scale. Questions of privacy and individual freedoms raised by Sir Malcolm’s off-hand remark “I’m a private citizen. I don’t want my emails being intercepted unless there’s a damn good reason for it,” are immediately overwritten; “Ultimately, I don’t mind if it helps catch terrorists.”