​‘Law on GCHQ in UK needs to be rewritten’

​‘Law on GCHQ in UK needs to be rewritten’
The law in the UK regarding surveillance is very lax and vague, and the government which has interpreted it for itself, should spell out what GCHQ can and cannot do, Jim Killock, Executive Director of The Open Rights Group, told RT.

RT: We were all shocked after Snowden's initial revelations about the NSA. Are you surprised that he says British spying practices are even worse?

Jim Killock: We have heard a lot from Edward Snowden last year or so about what the UK is up to and we have known that the Americans have said that in those documents that they think that the UK has a more lax legal regime. I think that Edward Snowden’s observations are not a surprise, but they are a very good reminder to everybody that this is not being sorted out in the UK. Unlike America, where there has at least been the start of a debate, and politicians have said: “We do have a problem and we do have to convince people that actually what we are doing is needed, or at least that will restrain it where it isn’t needed.” That just hasn’t happened in the UK. The parties have said: “We do need a debate but we are not going to discuss what we think should happen.” So we haven’t had this debate.

RT: GCHQ says it takes the law very seriously and works within the law but Snowden says that UK surveillance has no limits. How can these be combined?

JK: They are combined because the law is very lax in the UK. There are not the same kinds of restraints. The law is quit vague as to what might be permitted, and the interpretation of that law is something that the government has decided for itself. So GCHQ [The Government Communications Headquarters] and the Home Office, and the senior of a very few senior ministers have decided what the law means without telling the rest of us. That makes it very unaccountable. That is why we need these laws simply rewritten. There have to be rewritten to spell out what GCHQ can and cannot do. Can it take everybody’s data and harvest it on the basis that it will only ever be examined by a machine? That is no comfort to me, but let’s have a debate. Is it ok for GCHQ to take over foreign networks or other people’s networks, to spy on people who may themselves be innocent, but somebody else might be of interest? These questions have to be discussed because the consequences of that kind of spying can be to lower everybody’s security. If you invade somebody’s network, so can somebody else, so can a criminal.

RT: Snowden also said that lack of coverage on the surveillance program within Britain's press "did a disservice to the public.” Why isn’t the press reporting more on it?

JK: I think what is happening here is the press do find these difficulties about national security, nobody wants to be disloyal to their country. At the same time, the politicians don’t want to have the debate. And if the politicians are not a leading part of that debate then it is very hard for the media to follow. So you have got a sort of standoff where nobody is really talking about substantial issues. I think this debate will happen. When Theresa May a few weeks ago said that she wanted to introduce the “snooper’s charter” to give the kind of powers that Edward Snowden has found out about GCHQ to the police, then that tells you that we need that debate, and politicians have to then start talking about the consequences of this. So I think it will happen.

RT: Now there is a lot of debate on the war against ISIS. Is that going to diminish an upcoming debate any time soon? Is the government really that concerned?

JK: This is a problem. I know a lot of people are very concerned but they don’t know what they can do about it. And when politicians start talking about holding themselves accountable, or when courts intervene, or when legislation comes up and people have a say, be able to persuade the legislators about what the law should look like in the future -those are the moments when people start to take action. I think this debate will happen, and I think that the politicians are being very complaisant. To be honest they are just trying to keep their heads down. Because the more they can keep their heads down, and the more they can pretend that there isn’t concern out there. There is. It is just very complicated for people. They don’t know where exactly a line should be drawn, and that requires the public debate for people to know. It is a hard time right now for anybody who is trying to get decent change. But I am convinced that this problem will simply not go away, and eventually Britain will get a proper say about precisely where these lines should be drawn.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.