The UK still lags behind the US in surveillance transparency

filesIf the UK is serious about conducting a proper debate on mass data collection and surveillance transparency, they would do well to take note of the issues raised in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) documents recently released by the US. In a redacted, 117-page document [PDF], FISC Judge John Bates heavily criticised the NSA’s repeated ‘overcollection’ of data, stating that:

“The government has said nothing about how the systematic overcollection was permitted to continue, [redacted]. On the record before the court, the most charitable interpretation possible is that the same factors identified by the government [redacted] remained unabated and in full effect.”

Alarmingly, not only was too much data collected but, as Judge Bates also highlights, it “included some data that had not been authorized for collection.” The document shows that the agency struggled to collect metadata – the who, when and where – without also collecting information such as the content. (For more information about metadata you can read our briefing here)

The Department of Justice released this document as part of the declassification of 38 documents, all relating to the NSA’s previous surveillance programme. Big Brother Watch welcomes this move by the US and the UK would do well to consider the issues of metadata collection highlighted in the FISC document; especially in view of the recent and rushed passing of the Date Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP), which sees the bulk storage of metadata. We have made repeated calls for greater surveillance transparency in the UK and the US’s development only further highlights the UK’s weak position. (Our briefing on greater surveillance transparency can be found here [PDF].)

The Judge also highlighted alarming data breach cases whereby “NSA analysts made it a general practice to disseminate to other agencies…reports containing US person information…without obtaining the required determination.” It is vital that more is done to prevent data breaches such as these in any future data collection programme.

Big Brother Watch has repeatedly emphasised the importance of introducing stronger sanctions for individuals who illegally disclose personal data. We have previously highlighted the lax attitude and scale of data protection issues in our reports Local Authority Data Loss and NHS Breaches of Data Protection Law. In view of the Government’s promise that the ‘sunset’ clause of DRIP will lead to a ‘proper debate’ on issues of data collection and surveillance, we believe this would also be a prime opportunity to introduce custodial sentences for those who breach the Data Protection Act as well as to discuss the issues already highlighted. It is vital that the UK Government stops falling behind the US and instead begins to rectify the issues raised by the Snowden revelations and the FISC document.