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10 June 2013

The questions William Hague needs to answer about GCHQ and Prism

The Foreign Secretary claims law-abiding citizens have "nothing to fear" but MPs will want more reassurance than that.

By George Eaton

After his rather unreassuring statement that law-abiding citizens have “nothing to fear”, William Hague will make a Commons statement today on claims that GCHQ received data gathered through the US spy programme Prism. Papers obtained by the Guardian suggest that the UK’s security agency last year generated 197 intelligence reports through the system, which gave the FBI and the National Security Agency access to the servers of nine of the world’s biggest internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype, and has had access since at least June 2010.

The main concern voiced by MPs is that GCHQ may have used Prism to circumvent the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which requires ministerial authority for intercepting data content such as emails. In his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, Hague declared that it was “fanciful” and “nonsense” to suggest that this was the case, but refused to either confirm or deny that the security agency had accessed the system, insisting that “This is secret work…it is secret for a reason”. He also said: “What people need to know is intelligence-gathering in this country by the UK is governed by a very strong legal framework so that we get the balance right between the liberties and privacy of people and the security of the country.” But MPs want far more detail on just how strong that “legal framework” is. Here are some of the questions Hague will be expected to answer. 

– When did you and other ministers first learn of the existence of Prism?

– Did you approve GCHQ’s use of Prism or were intelligence officials able to make requests to directly the US authorities?

– Does the intelligence and security committee have the resources necessary to carry out effective scrutiny of GCHQ?

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– Why was Prism not mentioned in the most recent report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office?

– Is this a backdoor version of the Communications Data Bill (or “snooper’s charter”)?