Britain’s ‘light-touch’ oversight: watchdog staff of 10 monitors intelligence gathering performed by 10,000

The Independent reports: The little-known watchdog responsible for ensuring that Britain’s spy agencies act within the law over communication interceptions has been condemned as “ineffective” by civil liberties campaigners – amid concerns that it failed to scrutinise the systems revealed by Edward Snowden.

The Independent has established that the watchdog’s annual report had to be delayed and revised because the first draft made no mention of the hi-tech GCHQ spying programmes exposed by the US whistleblower.

The updated 2012 report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office (ICCO) will now be published later this month, after hastily organised revisions were ordered by Whitehall officials.

In documents disclosed by Mr Snowden, it was revealed that Britain’s spy centre in Cheltenham has for at least two years been using advanced technology to access hundreds of trans-Atlantic fibre-optic cables which daily carry hundreds of millions of private telecommunications messages. The programme goes by the codename Operation Tempora.

Gathered legally because digital traffic “leaves” the UK as fibre-optic traffic, the interceptions include phone calls, emails and records of internet usage. This step-change in access technology has exposed the inadequate oversight regimes under which the spy agencies operate, privacy activists say.

According to senior Home Office sources, the ICCO’s revised 2012 report will now make passing references to GCHQ’s latest interception technology. But the report will nevertheless gloss over its own oversight inadequacies and offer a clean bill of health to the UK’s surveillance regime by praising, as it has in past years, the co-operation and diligence shown by intelligence and police agencies in complying with the law.

Around 10,000 staff across the UK’s three main spy agencies, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ in Cheltenham, have access to Tempora’s gathered data, as do 850,000 employees and private contractors of the NSA in the United States.

By comparison, the small ICCO office based in Whitehall’s Queen Anne’s Gate headed by the retired appeal court judge Sir Anthony May, currently has less than 10 full-time staff to carry out its statutory duty of reviewing the interception activity of the UK spy agencies, the Metropolitan Police, HM Revenue and Customs, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and Ministry of Defence. [Continue reading…]

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