Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has launched a review of the data gathering activities of Britain's spy agencies. The review comes after 10 months of allegations about the surveillance activities of various Western intelligence agencies arising from the US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The review will examine both their surveillance capabilities and the legal framework in which they operate. However, the issue has split the two coalition leaders, with prime minister David Cameron unconvinced that either the security services' surveillance activities need to be curtailed, or that they require tighter regulatory oversight.
Clegg has therefore set up an independent review, which will examine the implications of the "information harvesting" techniques developed and run by the NSA and GCHQ, and the legal framework in which they are allowed to operate in the UK.
"It is not enough for the agencies to claim that they accurately interpret the correct balance between privacy and national security; they must be seen to do so, and that means strong, exacting third-party oversight," an aide to Nick Clegg told The Guardian.
The review will be led by the intelligence and military think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, and chaired by the organisation's director general, Michael Clarke. Clegg said that one of the aims of the review - which will report after the general election - is to provoke the kind of public debate about official surveillance that has been missing "on this side of the Atlantic".
Clegg said that he was not opposed "in principle" to state gathering of data, but that it needed to be as unintrusive as possible and should not stray into private affairs.
Hence, the review will examine what the security services should be looking at, how long collected data is stored and by whom - and who ought to authorise its gathering. However, the review does not appear to cover analysis, or whether the data should be subjected to "big data" style analysis and cross-referenced with other official and intelligence-agency data sets.
The Royal United Services Institute, furthermore, is very much an establishment body and can be expected not to rock the boat in terms of its conclusions.
At the same time, Clegg also called for an overhaul of the parliamentary body responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). The ISC is currently chaired by former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and has only just opened an inquiry into the Snowden revelations.
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