As the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, I have taken a close interest in how as a democratic society we hold the intelligence services to account, whilst balancing our liberty with our security.
President Barack Obama summarised the basic dilemma in early June, stating that ‘it is important to understand that you can’t have 100 per cent security and then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make choices as a society.’
The same decisions of course apply to the United Kingdom, which unfortunately still faces a very significant terrorist threat to this day. For every successful terrorist outrage such as the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, numerous attempts have been pre-empted or foiled by our security services.
There are no easy answers, but a number of points should be borne in mind. First, the intelligence agencies do not partake in the systematic reading or listening of the public’s communications. No letter can be opened, telephone conversation monitored, or email read without the permission of a Minister, and the Minister’s decision has to be based on sound reasoning on a case-by-case basis.
Secondly, the legal basis for the activity of our intelligence activities does not allow for the circumvention of these regulations by contracting out the collection of information to a foreign agency. Receipt of any such information about people in the UK, regardless of by whom it was collected, requires the proper Ministerial authority if our intelligence agencies want to read it.
The key question is why are the intelligence agencies using this technology? A relevant analogy is that of CCTV cameras. People would be very uncomfortable if CCTV technology was used in order to deliberately pry into people’s personal lives. However CCTV is accepted because people know that CCTV cameras are used to identify those who have been caught committing crimes, and to bring them to justice.
Similarly, the UK has the necessary oversight procedures and safeguards to ensure that the intelligence agencies keep us safe, whilst retaining public confidence.