MPs’ spy committee ‘on trial’, ex-GCHQ chief warns

Parliament's oversight of intelligence activities will face a major shake-up if it does not improve, a former head of GCHQ has told

Sir David Omand, a key figure within Tony Blair's government during the period before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said Sir Malcolm Rifkind's intelligence and security committee would have to be reformed if it could not convince senior judges and others that it is doing its job.

"The committee has new powers, they can demand information," he said.

"They're on trial and if they do a good job of the current inquiries, good. If not, they will have to be beefed up."

Rifkind's committee faces question-marks over its handling of the revelations about the US National Security Agency's Prism programme and its cooperation with the British eavesdropping service GCHQ.

Omand, who served as director of GCHQ from 1996 to 1997, said strong mechanisms overseeing the internet were essential in order to legitimise every kind of online law enforcement activity.

"We need to get over the conceptual confusion between bulk access and mass surveillance," he added.

"In order to find the wanted communications, you need to get your computers access to the internet."

One of the most effective ways of doing this is by tapping undersea cables, he revealed.

This sort of activity involves computer programs trawling through masses of data to find specific communications. It should be exposed as politically acceptable because "computers are not conscious", Omand argued.

He told today's London Conference on globalisation that checks and balances should to be established "to prevent the internet developing in ways we really don't like".

And he suggested commercial interests in people's data were a much bigger threat to civil liberties than actions by government.

"The hard fact is most of the internet wouldn't operate at all today were it not for the huge value of our personal data, which is hoovered up and sold up for commercial marketing purposes," Omand added.

"Without that you wouldn't have Google free to use."

Corporate interests at the summit were keen to focus on the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, however.

Matthew Kirk, external affairs director at Vodafone, said his group was preparing to release the first multi-country disclosure of the extent of its cooperation with national governments.

"It's been a very difficult report to pull together, partly because there are things we're not allowed to disclose but partly because the data itself can be very misleading and very difficult to understand and interpret," Kirk told the conference.

"The lesson I've drawn out of the Snowden allegations is that governments need to be much clearer about the purpose for which they infringe on citizens' privacy; about the agencies that have the legal power to do so; about the authority about which it's done; and, critically, about transparency and accountability systems."