UK spies did not misuse powers for mass surveillance, watchdog says

UK agencies haven't the 'slightest interest' in examining emails and phone calls, a report says

British intelligence agencies do not misuse their powers to engage in random mass intrusion into the communications of law-abiding U.K. citizens, a government watchdog said in an annual report.

In a report released Tuesday, U.K. Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Anthony May, discussed disclosures based on documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about what had been secret surveillance programs of the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ. The commissioner's job is to ensure that government agencies follow laws when intercepting communications and he works independently of the government.

It is "quite clear" that people who do not associate with potential terrorists or serious criminals, or engage in other actions that could threaten national security are of no interest to surveillance agencies, he wrote.

"[It] can be assured that none of the interception agencies which I inspect has the slightest interest in examining their emails, their phone or postal communications or their use of the internet, and they do not do so to any extent which could reasonably be regarded as significant," May wrote in the report.

Moreover, British intelligence agencies do not circumvent U.K. laws by receiving material from U.S. agencies about British citizens that could not be lawfully obtained in the U.K., he said.

While May was not able to confirm or deny information reportedly obtained from files leaked by Snowden to the media, the commissioner had unrestricted access to all information, however sensitive, from public authorities, he noted in the report.

In 2013, police and other authorities made 514,608 requests to acquire communications data that were approved, according to the report.

However, the number of people whose data was obtained is probably much smaller because multiple requests could involve the same individual. The number of individual people whose data was acquired by authorities is not currently broken out in the figures reported to May. But the commissioner said that in his opinion the number may be too high,

"At face value, it seems to me to be a very large number. It has the feel of being too many," May wrote, adding that he asked his inspectors to see if there might be "a significant institutional overuse" of data-gathering powers. This investigation will focus on police and law enforcement agencies, which account for about 90 percent of the requests, May said.

The report was sent to Prime Minister David Cameron and the Parliament.

The government is considering the report's recommendations and will respond in due course, Cameron said in a written statement.

"I believe his report provides an authoritative, expert and reassuring assessment of the lawfulness, necessity and proportionality of the intelligence agencies' work," he wrote.

Home Secretary Theresa May said in an emailed statement: "It makes clear the intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies and other public authorities operate lawfully, conscientiously and in the national interest and, importantly, do not engage in indiscriminate and random mass surveillance." She added that communications data is "vital" in helping to keep the public safe

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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