UK’s online spying habits are legal but require overhaul, says government


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GCHQAn inquiry by the UK government into the bulk interception of communications data has cleared the country’s spy agencies of wrong-doing. The report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said that the UK’s spies “do not seek to circumvent the law,” and that their activities do not constitute “blanket surveillance” or “indiscriminate surveillance.” However, the report condemns the legal framework surrounding digital surveillance in the UK, saying it is “unnecessarily complicated and – crucially – lacks transparency.”

“The current, overly complicated, legislation.”

The inquiry by the ISC was launched in 2013 after leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of online surveillance by both the US and UK. “In a democratic society,” says the heavily-censored report, “those powers cannot be unconstrained: limits and safeguards are essential.” The report concludes that its findings are “reassuring,” but that they “do not obviate the need for a thorough overhaul of the current, overly complicated, legislation.”

The ISC states that the bulk interception of data by GCHQ and other UK spy agencies is necessary not only to investigate specific threats, but also discover new leads. GCHQ reportedly targets a “very small percentage of the ‘bearers’ that make up the internet” (these bearers are described as international fibre optic cables carrying up to 10 gigabits of data per second), and that only a “very tiny percentage” of communications that are collected are actually opened by analysts.

“fewer than *** of *** per cent of the items that transit the internet are read.”

However, it’s difficult to judge just how small this percentage actually is, as any concrete figures are censored. For example, the report says with regards to the interception of messages: “In practice, this means that fewer than *** of *** per cent of the items that transit the internet in one day are ever selected to be read by a GCHQ analyst.”

A separate report from the UK’s Interception of Communication Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) also published today offers a little more insight. It says that in 2014, the UK issued 2,795 warrants to intercept communications data, that is, to open up and read a message’s content. Of these, says the IOCCO, 60 were “interception errors,” a category that includes mistakes ranging from “over-collection” to “unauthorized selection.”

Access to Communications data was authorized half a million times

In 2014, however, the UK also saw more than half a million authorizations (517,236) for police and law enforcement agencies to access “communications data.” In the ISC’s report this category is defined as “the details about a communication – the ‘who, when and where’ – but not the content of what was said or written.” The IOCCO says that although there were “some examples where [these] powers had been used improperly or unnecessarily,” on the whole it was happy that there was no “significant institutional overuse” of communications data.

The report by the ISC also said that a small number of staff at intelligence agencies in the UK had been dismissed for inappropriately accessing data. One GCHQ staff member is mentioned as being “dismissed” for “misusing access to GCHQ’s systems,” while an undisclosed number of individuals from other agencies have been “disciplined – or in some cases dismissed.” Lord Butler of Brockwell, one of the ISC members, said that there were only “very small single figures of abuse.”

Scource: The Verge

Rennie calls on SNP to halt roll out of new ID database


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Thought Police

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP has called on the Scottish Government to halt plans to develop a national identity register of every person in Scotland.

Mr Rennie made the call after anti-ID card campaigners flagged up the dangers of a current Scottish Government proposal to build a database from health records and share the information with all other government bodies.

Under Scottish Government plans, the NHS Central Register will be expanded. Every person in Scotland will be given a unique number to allow the government to check their use of government services.  The population database will be used for everything from whether a person has been treated for cancer to when they want to sign up to membership of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

A similar population register was scrapped when the UK Labour Government’s controversial and expensive plans for ID cards were scrapped in 2010.

Mr Rennie said:

“People hate the idea of ID cards in this country. They would be intrusive, expensive and increase the power of the over-mighty state. They were rightly scrapped in the rest of the UK. It relied on a giant identity register keeping track on all of us. It’s a big concern that the Scottish Government is building the skeleton of a national identity register in Scotland. It’s one skip away from a ID card and it needs to be stopped.

“They are planning to take information on people using the health service and allowing access to 120 other organisations.

“Despite the obvious risks to personal freedom, the Scottish Government is yet to conduct the necessary Privacy Impact Assessment. We have no information on how SNP minsters would propose to keep information safe when such a wide range of people would have access to the database. They’ve not even set out the estimate of the costs involved in this massive data expansion.

“The Scottish Government should call a halt to the new super ID database.

“It shows how much people need the Liberal Democrats to stand up for civil liberties. The Conservatives are campaigning to restart the Snoopers’ Charter at a UK level and are being restrained by the Liberal Democrats. In Scotland, the nationalists are constructing a national identity register by the back door. SNP ministers must halt the roll-out of this super ID database.”

Talk of SNP deal will dog Miliband


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Ed Miliband

Conservatives in Westminster believe they are on to something.

English MPs suggest voters in marginal constituencies hate the idea of Scottish Nationalist MPs dictating their futures.

So as Prime Minister’s Questions demonstrated in a noisily grisly session on Wednesday, David Cameron will try to ram in a reference to the supposed ‘deal’ between Labour and the SNP at every possible opportunity.

Whether that is based on actual fact is quite another question.

At this stage the idea of any formal arrangement with the SNP makes most Labour MPs snort.

Labour’s difficulty is the Tories believe the charge has traction, and the SNP is enjoying every moment”

The long-held hostility and recent bitterness over the referendum makes them working together seem fanciful.

One well-placed Labour MP told me this week: “We will rule it out eventually, they hate us and we hate them.”

So why does Ed Miliband not just say simply, it won’t happen? He and his colleagues on Wednesday, when asked repeatedly, can’t quite form the words.

One source close to the leadership has – in the way only Westminster creates these bizarre scenarios – just ruled out ruling it out.

Coalition likely

So why not? First, the arithmetic.

This is the most unpredictable election in many years.

What does appears certain is that the SNP will gain a slew of seats at Labour’s expense.

Ed Miliband is unlikely to win the election outright. So if he has any hope of getting a government together, he is likely to need the nationalists’ support.

So, while it is a long way short signing any kind of pact, Labour cannot deny that they would potentially ask for Nationalist backing on particular issues to get anything done.

For their part, the SNP is delighting in reminding us there is a potential offer on the table.

Nicola Sturgeon’s party is expected to make significant gains in May

Their leader in Westminster Angus Robertson said on Wednesday: “If the numbers are such that the Labour Party cannot command a majority they will have to work with the SNP.”

But there is a bigger line that Labour is trying to hold.

If the party makes a categoric statement ruling out working with the SNP, what happens next?

The fear is they would have to indulge a giant Westminster parlour game about who would play with who, and rather than concentrate on trying to get their own message out the party leaders would get stuck answering endless hypothetical questions.

What about working with the Lib Dems? What about working with the Greens?

One member of the Shadow Cabinet suggested “we’re not going to fall for that” – but wondered aloud why the Conservatives hadn’t been yet pressed on a similar question on their attitude to working once more with the Lib Dems.

Another dismissed what’s going on as just “a silly game”.

But Labour’s difficulty is the Tories believe the charge has traction, and the SNP is enjoying every moment.

Refusing to get involved in a conversation doesn’t always silence your opponents.


Source: Laura Kuenssberg Chief correspondent, Newsnight


Former SNP leader says Scots ‘could quit UK’ after EU vote


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Gordon Wilson

Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson has said Scotland should declare independence if the rest of the UK votes to leave the European Union against its wishes.

Mr Wilson acknowledged that a “confirmatory” referendum may be “politically desirable”.

But he said the Scottish government would have a mandate to retain membership of the EU by leaving the UK.

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an “in/out” vote on the EU if the Conservative party wins an overall majority at the general election on 7 May.

In the event of a hung parliament, Mr Wilson, who led the SNP throughout the 1980s, argued that the package of extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, designed by the Smith Commission and endorsed by the three main UK parties, should be ditched in favour of a more radical approach.

In a paper examining the prospects for independence six months after it was rejected by 55% to 45% in a referendum, Mr Wilson said the SNP “should start afresh and negotiate fiscal autonomy,” if it were in a position of influence at Westminster following the election.

Polls suggest the SNP could hold the balance of power after the poll, perhaps returning 50 or more MPs to a House of Commons where neither of the two main parties had an overall majority.

This, argued Mr Wilson, would present an opportunity to reject the “harmful” and “incoherent” proposals of Lord Smith which he claims amount to “a poison pill”.

“More powers and less money is a recipe for frustration and anger,” he wrote.

Instead, he suggested Scotland should emulate the Isle of Man “which has its own fiscal system and makes payment to London for foreign affairs, defence, national insurance and other shared costs.”

“Devolution has run its course and is no longer viable,” insisted Mr Wilson.

‘Public demand’

But he warned the current SNP leadership against being “carried away” by “political power-play” in the event of negotiations at Westminster after a hung parliament.

“They must vote the way that benefits Scotland and that they can justify on the ground,” he said.

He was also strongly critical of the party’s campaign during the 2014 referendum, saying it “failed to win the economic arguments.”

“They were too timid and failed to present a case on the currency, a central bank and fiscal policy that was credible. That must not happen again,” he wrote, in the paper entitled “The Referendum Six Months On”.

The former MP for Dundee East rejected the suggestion that “The Vow”delivered by the leaders of the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats two days before the referendum was decisive, calling it “meaningless, vague and ill-defined.”

The battle for independence is not over for a generation said Mr Wilson, who argued that another referendum should be held in the next five to 20 years but only when there is “sustained support of over 55% and substantial public demand.”

Economic arguments

He proposed that an “Independence Convention” be held on 19 September, a year to the date that the result of the referendum was published, to consider the “strategies needed” to win a second plebiscite.

An SNP spokesman said: “As the first minister has made clear, the people of Scotland will decide when the next referendum is held. Scotland can only become independent through a majority vote in a referendum on Scottish independence.”

Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West Mike Crockart said: “Gordon Wilson is right that the SNP lost the “economic arguments” in the referendum campaign.

“They need to accept that and move on. While the SNP still has its eye off the ball on day-to-day issues, thousands of people are waiting hours to be seen at A&E units or struggling to find a place at a college hit by cuts.

“During the referendum campaign, Nicola Sturgeon said that the “once in a generation” vote meant the issue was decided for 15 years, she needs to come clean on whether she now agrees with her former party leader.”

A spokesman for Scottish Labour said Scots would be “concerned” that a senior SNP figure “is welcoming further austerity as a means to achieving a political end”.

He added: “Scotland cannot afford another five years of the Tories, whose plan would take us back 1930s levels of public spending, before there even was an NHS.

“Meanwhile, SNP plans for Scottish only taxes to support Scottish spending will end the Barnett formula, cost Scotland billions and end shared UK pension, meaning austerity max for Scotland.

“Neither option is best for Scotland.”


‘Big Brother’ fears 
over SNP database 
for millions of Scots


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Big Brother

A NEW “super ID database” is being planned by SNP ministers which would be shared among government bodies, it has emerged.

It could be used to keep a record of information including whether a person has been treated for cancer, to if they have signed up for membership of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic ­Gardens.

Opposition parties have voiced “Big Brother” concerns that it is an “intrusive” tool which will increase the “over-mighty power of the state”.

The Scottish Government is considering an extension of the NHS central register, which is already the “most complete and authoritative record of individuals in Scotland”.

It currently covers about 30 per cent of people, but ministers want to extend this and share information stored with more than 100 government agencies – including HMRC for tax ­purposes.

A similar population register was ditched south of the Border when controversial and expensive plans for ID cards were scrapped in 2010.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “People hate the idea of ID cards. They would be intrusive, expensive and increase the power of the over-mighty state. They were rightly scrapped in the rest of the UK. It relied on a giant identity register keeping track of all of us.

“It’s a big concern the Scottish Government is building the skeleton of a national identity register in Scotland. It’s one skip away from a ID card and it needs to be stopped. They are planning to take information on people using the health service and allow access to 120 other ­organisations.”

Scots can access online public services in local government and the health service through a “myaccount” system.

The government now wants all public bodies to use this system and – where they hold information on an individual – to have access to their citizen reference number (UCRN) and be provided with data from the central register.

Mr Rennie added: “We have no information on how SNP minsters would propose to keep information safe.”

The Scottish proposal for IDs linked to a central register was rejected by the Cabinet Office for the rest of the UK as being too high risk and critics said there was no explanation why a central register is not high risk in Scotland.

There are also concerns the plan could breach the Human Rights Act right to privacy, and the Data Protection Act’s requirement that data needs to be “necessary” for it to be retained.

The Scottish Government said that the “minimum amount of data” would be shared, in its consultation. “Organisations will also have to set up data-sharing agreements to ensure that the data is used for the specific purpose identified,” it added.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The proposals are consistent with the Scottish Government’s data management and privacy principles.

“We take the security and privacy of this data very seriously indeed, and any sharing would only take place under tightly controlled arrangements.”

Source: SCOTT MACNAB (The Scotsman)


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