November 07, 2013 | Peter Bradwell

Intelligence & Security Committee fails to convince

Today saw the first public questioning of the heads of the UK's secret services by the Intelligence and Security Committee. For anyone looking for incisive probing about the Snowden revelations, it was a disappointing hour and a half.

In the Westminster Hall debate (see ORG's summary of the debate in a previous blog) on oversight of surveillance last week Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, invited people to judge the Committee's effectiveness on the basis of the work they do in the coming months: 

"Given our willingness to have our first public hearing with the intelligence chiefs next week in front of the cameras, plus other public sessions, as well as the new powers we are already exercising, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to test whether we use such powers properly."

He was rather making a rod for his own back here. Today's public hearing - rather predictably - did not inspire confidence in the Committee's ability to scrutinise and hold to account the security services they are charged with overseeing.

The questions were very broad, with little follow up. Significant questions about the law and technology were dealt with in a few moments. Sir Iain Lobban was even congratulated by the chair for a fairly dubious - and laboured - analogy involving hay and needles. We didn't see anything like some of the recent grandstanding Committee moments, such as the CMS Committee's grilling of the Murdochs or when Margaret Hodge's Public Accounts Committee held allegedly tax avoiding companies' feet to the flames.

The Committee failed to ask challenging questions or press in depth on the primary issues of law and policy raised by the Snowden revelations. For instance, they didn't press on who decided mass data trawling did not need an explicit parliamentary vote. Or, how do they square data trawls with human rights judgements showing such harvests are going too far?  Why is undermining internet security acceptable?  Why is it fine to break into potentially millions of accounts at Google and Yahoo! when there are legal routes to the same data?

By concentrating on generalities the ISC failed to bite, which is extremely worrying - a key argument is that the UK's oversight regime, that they are part of, is one of the world's most strict.

At the very least the hour and a half session left viewers with the impression that the Committee needs reforming. There are plenty of ideas about how to do this. Whether it is having an member of the opposition as chair or, as Jamie Bartlett suggested today, putting members of the public or civil society groups on the Committee.

Comments (1)

  1. Don:
    Nov 09, 2013 at 04:11 AM

    thanks Peter
    at the moment there seems to be on twitter a plethora of story's about what went wrong,
    I have an idea for a central tech repository so instead of having to search through millions of tweets/sited/groups. anyone who is interested could get all the information from one place. and making it a community repo (open source model) the information would be verified and checked by a lot of people instead of a few. more people = more experience/knowledge = better results. (just an idea, good or bad? who knows)
    as we have a limited number of MP's working with us at the moment, we should be supporting them with all the information and help we can, as I believe ISC regulation transparency and supervision will only be achieved working with parliament not against it, and we need to support our brave MP's with the best information/tools we can. Has anyone asked them what would be the best way to provide help and support to them?
    how could we politely educate the current committee? giving them the tools to actually understand the technical issues and then let them prove they want to work for the good of the public.(or not) (again just another idea)
    from what I have seen if we can combine and unite under the one cause of fighting the excessive surveillance and proving we still support the 3 agency's in their protection of our country (taking no political stance) the public will support us. (and perhaps get more MP's on board)
    we need to work together, an individual group is more effective than a group of individuals
    please try again to explain to your MP what is going on and how it affects everyone including why metadata is dangerous, how searching a database of emails for keywords is still reading but electronically, ask them under the wide reach of RIPA as all government departments are now electronic what stops the 3 agency's from accessing your health records, tax records, benefit agency, financial information and the rest
    sorry for the above ramblings, just my thoughts at the moment. (right or wrong who knows)