back to article NSA PRISM-gate: Relax, GCHQ spooks 'keep us safe', says Cameron

British intelligence agencies have broken no laws and are subject to "proper" parliamentary scrutiny, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted today as the NSA PRISM scandal reached Blighty. He was forced to defend Brit spooks following allegations that UK eavesdropping nerve-centre GCHQ had access to the Americans' controversial …

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  1. wolfetone Silver badge
    Stop

    If we think about it in terms of receiving a letter through The Royal Mail, what GCHQ are doing (using NSA as the Proxy) is intercepting a letter sent to us, reading it, then passing it on to us.

    I'm more than sure if this example was peddled in the media, more people would take notice of this and see how serious this is to our freedom. We live in a country where it's supposed to be "Innocent until proven guilty". But right now, with this snooping, it's almost as if the Government need to prove we're innocent to themselves, and retry us a number of times after that to make sure.

    It's also shocking to see the apathetic attitude the country is having towards this. Seems more people are worried about eating Black Beauty than Big Brother looking at their emails.

    1. Chris Miller

      True, but I've always told people not to put anything in an email that they wouldn't feel comfortable writing on a postcard.

      I wonder how many terrorist plots have been genuinely uncovered in this way (as opposed to monitoring existing 'people of interest'). It would take a really dim terrorist (of which, admittedly, there appears to be no great shortage) to send "I've got all the Semtex we need for the bomb" in an email. Surely you'd arrange for an apparently innocuous code: "All the guests have been invited to the wedding", or some such.

      1. My Alter Ego
        Flame

        @Chris Miller

        WHY ARE YOU HELPING TEH TERRISTS BY GIVING THEM IDEAS!!!!!1111111ONEHUNDREDANDELEVEN

        1. Gnomalarta

          Re: @Chris Miller

          This meant to be ironic - right?

      2. LinkOfHyrule
        Paris Hilton

        It would take a really dim terrorist

        Don't forget all the terrorists who use twitter to spout out silly jokes when their flights are delayed because of snow!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      People use gmail.

      gmail reads your mail looking for ways to profile you. It seems people are conditioned to accept this wholesale violation of personal information.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: People use gmail.

        The difference being that gmail doesn't, currently), operate off-shore prison camps where you get tortured (if you believe in a certain prophet) or have their own special regiment that come round and shoot you (if you believe in transubstantiation)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: People use gmail.

          The difference being that gmail doesn't..

          As far as you know. You wouldn't be able to search for that ...

        2. Phil P
          Trollface

          Re: People use gmail.

          The Gmail off-shore prison camp is where your mail is forwarded onto outlook.com and you're forbidden by court-order to use any other mail service.

    3. Phil P
      Black Helicopters

      Now now, the NSA are not reading the letter.

      They're intercepting the letter, opening it, photographing the contents, scanning it for OCR for text-based indexing and saving metadata about who the envelope says sent and received it, how many words there are, topic domains and so on for searching, then carefully sealing the photographs away, unread by humans.

      If a later search across the metadata suggests there might be something, or if a full-text indexed search suggests there might be something, then they have evidence with which to establish probable cause to get a warrant to unseal the photographs of the letter you sent. Because they've successfully argued to the Star Chamber, er I mean FISA, that the interception doesn't _really_ take place until a human looks at the photos, they argue that this is all legal and compliant with the US Constitution.

      And folks? Echelon has for decades operated on the principle of "we spy on your folks, you spy on our folks, neither breaks the letter of the law and then we just hand over the data to each other", in the USA treating the US Fourth Amendment as an inconvenient problem to be worked around, and the Bill of Rights as a subject of contempt, instead of something to be safeguarded.

      The difference is that with PATRIOT the NSA was able to start cutting out the middle-man. If GCHQ are still involved at all then it's just because the NSA don't want to burn any bridges and want an ally to fall back on if PATRIOT ever gets repealed and they have to go back to the Old Ways.

      Good to see The Guardian continuing this battle. It was 20 years ago that I first read (in The Observer?) about the Echelon stuff, and the British "Class Warrants".

      Seriously, if folks in the UK are going to get upset, you should be upset about the continued existence and use (and lack of repeal) of Class Warrants. What is it, 98+% of the UK population covered under Class Warrants that have never been repealed? So if you own or have ever owned a motorcycle, then as a Dangerous Person the UK security services don't _need_ an individual warrant for you. You're already covered under a Class Warrant.

    4. This post has been deleted by its author

    5. LarsG
      Meh

      HOW TO CIRCUMVENT THE SAFEGUARDS

      NSA: hi GCHQ You might want to ask us if we have any information on Abdul Smith.

      GCHQ: hi NSA, do you have any information on Abdul Smith?

      NSA: Come to think of it, yes we do, would you like it?

      GCHQ: yes please NSA.

      10 minutes later.

      NSA: hi GCHQ, do you have any information on Abdul Smith?

      GCHQ: what a coincidence that you ask, we do, would you like it?

      NSA: Now that would be fantastic GCHQ, yes please.

      How to circumvent the safeguards.

      Confused? They try to make you.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: HOW TO CIRCUMVENT THE SAFEGUARDS

        From previous experience working in Northern Ireland:

        Do you have any information on Abdul Smith?

        Well we have some on an Anabel Smith will that do?

        Yes it's a 50% match - we will call that confirmation

        One home grown soundex matching system we saw matched any Al/Ali to Alistair, this avoided any confusion between Alistair/Alisdair but didn't rather hamper their ablity to deal with any persons of middle-eastern origin

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

      Now is the time to start asking questions,

      Hold on, back in a minute there's someone at the door...

      AAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggg. Uuuuuuuh................

      How Governments suppress free speech, whatever you do don't have a sports bag/holdall/suitcase in your house.

    7. Michael Dunn
      Black Helicopters

      @wolftone

      Same old misconception about British law - it is innocent _unless_ proven guilty. Using _until_ implies that the defendent is guilty, and it's just a matter of providing the proof.

      Naturally, the authorities prefer the latter form.

      1. wolfetone Silver badge

        @Michael Dunn

        You're mistaken. "Innocent until proven guilty" stems from "Presumption of innocence". In Common Law, this means that the accuser must prove that the accused is guilty with fact. The accused doesn't have to prove their innocence.

        And in any case, the accused must first be accused of the crime for them to be then proved they are guilty. If they are snooping on everyone (which is probably the case - tuna fishing before people cared about dolphins) then they are either not informing these people they are accused of a crime, or these people haven't committed a crime in the first place but the government want the data. So, it is the letter example yet again. They're reading it, they don't particularly care about the contents unless it says something they don't like, and hand it back to you without you knowing.

    8. Psyx
      Stop

      What's really worse: The fact that our governments happily hoover all of our electronic communication and neglect to mention it... or the fact that as far as they're concerned when it comes to light, it's all legal and above board?

    9. Vic

      > We live in a country where it's supposed to be "Innocent until proven guilty"

      No, we live in a country where it's supposed to be "Innocent unless proven guilty". But ISTM that certain individuals would rather it be as you said...

      Vic.

  2. Flawless101
    Meh

    Terrorism, the new word for communism.

    I wonder how many new laws have came about because of "terrorism".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Islamoterrorpedocommiephorographers and how to spot them. The helpful new pull out supplement from the Daily Mail.

    2. Mark 65

      "We do live in a dangerous world and live in a world of terror and terrorism. I do think it is right we have well-funded and well-organised intelligence services to keep us safe."

      Tell that to the Woolwich soldier's family Cameron you arsehole. Security theatre.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Calm down GCHQ and UK Gov.

    Law abiding governments have nothing to worry about from whistleblowers. Only war criminals, the corrupt and the dishonest should fear the activities of the media. If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about :-)

    1. Elmer Phud

      Re: Calm down GCHQ and UK Gov.

      Little Willie was on telly last night, carefully avoiding answering anything and blathering the usual 'Ministerial Bingo' quotes. He didn't actually say that either GCHQ or NSA or both were not giving head to servers.

      I was far more concerned after the interview than before.

  4. 8Ace
    Black Helicopters

    Call me a cynic but......

    The constant drive from government to ensure everyone has "fast" internet just encourages more and more of us to use the internet as our primary form of communication. As "citizens" do their communication, purchasing, and even social interaction through one "pipe" it makes life so much easier for the state to keep tabs on us and also to restrict what information we have access to. The cynic in me says that this is exactly why governments are so intent on rolling out fast connections to everyone.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If GCHQ has been lying to the public, then how do you know they are not lying to you or your government, Mister Cameron?

  6. Haku

    I'm glad a politician has told us everything is ok.

    Because we all know politicians never lie to the general public.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm glad a politician has told us everything is ok.

      Indeed, the moment Hague bleats the old "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear, yes sir yes sir three bags full" we should start running... Oh wait...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm glad a politician has told us everything is ok.

      So after "Trust me, I'm a spy" we now have "Trust me, I'm a politician".

      They'll be bringing out the big guns next, with statements from used car salesmen and estate agents expected shortly...

    3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: I'm glad a politician has told us everything is ok.

      He didn't lie - he said they operate within the law, the law is to do whatever they want.

  7. Eponymous Cowherd
    Big Brother

    Nothing to fear?

    "If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the United Kingdom, then they have to get authority. That means ministerial authority," he said.

    UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday that law-abiding Brits had "nothing to fear".

    The point is, Dave, they can just ask the NSA who, by inference, do the snooping for British Intelligence, without oversight or "ministerial authority ".

    1. Elmer Phud

      Re: Nothing to fear?

      ""If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the United Kingdom, then they have to get authority. That means ministerial authority," he said."

      and he never went any further than that.

      Other than laughing at the merest suggestion that Mr 15Pints himself might not know what was going on.

      1. This Side Up
        Big Brother

        Re: Nothing to fear?

        So let me get this right. If GCHQ want's to know the content of emails about people living in the United Kingdom it just has to say "Please Minister can we have authority to know the content of emails abut people living in the United Kingdom" and the minister says "Yes, of course you can have authority to know the content of emails about people living in the UK," and that's it. Note "about" and not "of", "to" or "from".

        1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: Nothing to fear?

          "....If GCHQ want's to know the content of emails about people living in the United Kingdom...." Not quite. They are not allowed blanket cover for just any and all people, they have to be very specific in their requests and provide reasonable cause, politicians being very shy of giving the go-ahead for a spy op that could land them with bad press or time at one of HMG's prisons. In fact, the biggest brake on the whole system does appear to be the desire of politicans to avoid bad press and/or jailtime. This works because they can never be sure they won't be replaced by their less-than-friendly political rivals after an election (or even a cabinet reshuffle), leaving them at the mercy of said rivals if they have authorised any intercepts without due process. Forget the Official Secrets Act - if the incoming minister finds dirt on his predecessor they will leak it to a friendly journo for political gain.

          This also undermines the other sheeple recipricol services bleat that we would simply ask the Yanks and they would in turn ask us to spy on eact other's citizens - how do we give the Yanks the info if we don't have it? We would have to go ask the minister before we could get the data to give the Yanks, and by the looks of it the CIA/NSA would have to go through their due process before passing any info to us, which kinda makes the recipricol angle sound like more conspiracy bleatings.

          1. frank ly

            @Matt Bryant Re: Nothing to fear?

            If I remember correctly, it was Michael Hestletine, who when a Minister, signed a document that stated it was ok to withold evidence that would prove the innocence of some company directors accused of supplying 'weapons parts' to Saddam Hussein. The supply of those parts had been carried out with the full knowledge of the UK security services, after the directors had raised their concerns about the contract with them.

            His reason for signing the document was, "A senior civil servant told me that I had to sign it."

            So, will Ministers act with probity, morality and good intentions?

        2. Psyx
          Pint

          Re: Nothing to fear?

          "So let me get this right."

          Sure: If they want to go to court with it, they could do that. Or they could cut the paperwork and ask the NSA if the NSA have anything... which they will have via interception. Then the NSA hand it over and GCHQ will have harvested from a legitimate and legal source... but of course can't be told where it came from because sources are protected.

          Everyone's ass is covered. And once there's enough data to consider prosecution, THEN they can go about getting UK governmental approval for the intercepts.

    2. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: Nothing to fear?

      I doubt it. The law is extremely clear hear, it does not depend upon interpretation or who is doing the collecting, if (UK) intelligence agencies need to see the data for a (UK) resident, they must have ministerial approval.

      I'd imagine that in most scenarios the approval would be forthcoming though.

      1. Eponymous Cowherd
        Unhappy

        Re: Nothing to fear?

        @Tom 38

        There is a world of difference between arranging interception of a UK citizen's comms on UK infrastructure and asking the NSA if they have any info. One takes a lot of arranging and cooperation between a number of companies / agencies / people, while the other is a phone call between an MI5 spook and an NSA spook.

        Are we to seriously to believe that they bother with "ministerial authority " for these nod and wink exchanges?

        1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: Eponymous Cowherd Re: Nothing to fear?

          ".....One takes a lot of arranging and cooperation between a number of companies / agencies / people, while the other is a phone call between an MI5 spook and an NSA spook....." Yeah, that's right, anyone in the UK services can pick up the phone and dial Langley and just ask to be put through to the bod that deals with subject X - seriously? There is a massive amount of safeguards and checks on who has access to what data in the UK and sharing data between British agencies, let alone handing it over to foreign ones. Yes, it does happen, but not off the back of a casual telephone call, and in line with a formal process and limited access list. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not like when M dials up Langley in "Quantum of Solice".

          1. Mad Mike

            Re: Eponymous Cowherd Nothing to fear?

            ".....One takes a lot of arranging and cooperation between a number of companies / agencies / people, while the other is a phone call between an MI5 spook and an NSA spook....." Yeah, that's right, anyone in the UK services can pick up the phone and dial Langley and just ask to be put through to the bod that deals with subject X - seriously? There is a massive amount of safeguards and checks on who has access to what data in the UK and sharing data between British agencies, let alone handing it over to foreign ones. Yes, it does happen, but not off the back of a casual telephone call, and in line with a formal process and limited access list. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not like when M dials up Langley in "Quantum of Solice".

            Says the man who doesn't know the difference between the NSA and Langley. Langley is the CIA, whilst Fort Meade is the NSA. So, if I wanted information from the NSA, you're right I wouldn't just call Langley; I'd call Fort Meade!!

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Nothing to fear?

          I would love to beleive him - but i'm Irish and Catholic

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Nothing to fear?

        > they must have ministerial approval.

        The question is do they need ministerial approval for each email/person logged or just a blanket - "we approve you to do whatever you want in the name of national security"

  8. DavCrav Silver badge

    Breaking EU law?

    Is the real reason that all the nine US companies that have blatantly given the NSA access to their systems are denying it is that EU law prohibits this and admitting it would most likely see them hauled up before some (e.g., German) privacy regulators and fined most likely billions over this systematic breach of privacy?

    It might be OK by US law, but US companies have to also obey other countries' laws. This could see them fined quite a lot of money in many countries other than the US, should this start to be confirmed in a stand-up-in-court way.

    1. asdf Silver badge

      Re: Breaking EU law?

      >Is the real reason that all the nine US companies that have blatantly given the NSA access to their systems are denying it is that EU law prohibits this

      Its even more basic than that. Not only does the NSA require them to give the information but it also requires that they deny giving the information including requiring lying to their customers and even investors. They even have laws to protect them in the US from liability. Granted that doesn't apply in the EU but if the EU presses the point then the US will get ugly once again to the EU and then all the UK readers can merkin bash on the article that will show up here. Never mind many in the US loathe our government as well.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Breaking EU law?

        Google should be safe - we know that they don't do any business in the Eu outside Ireland.

        So only Irish citizens need to worry

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Breaking EU law?

        Perhaps we are being unfair to these companies?

        Perhaps they didn't know the NSA was spying on their data.

        Perhaps Goole/Microsoft/Amazon/Facebook/Twitter/etc/etc security is so poor that anybody can walk into their data centers with a reel of fibre under their arm and a splitter and just patch into any of their systems.

    2. Vic

      Re: Breaking EU law?

      > EU law prohibits this and admitting it would most likely see them hauled up

      I'd like to see this situation cause the "Safe Harbor" (sic) provisions to be cancelled. The US very clearly does not have the same standard of data protection required by the DPA (and equivalents), so it seems a bit odd just to pretend it does...

      Vic.

  9. IDoNotThinkSo
    Black Helicopters

    Governments operating within the law should have nothing to fear from whistleblowers.

    After all, if they've got nothing to hide, they've got nothing to fear, right?

  10. Mike Richards

    Will the government (and the Opposition) tell us if they are happy with the NSA trawling our data and are they okay about British companies using US-based IT services for their business?

  11. smudge Silver badge
    Facepalm

    ISC: "We're on the case!"

    ... the chairman of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, Malcolm Rifkind, hastily [announced] before the weekend that his panel of MPs expect a full report from GCHQ about PRISM imminently.

    That'll be the same committee that only discovered last week that BT had signed up Huawei as a supplier eight years ago.

    Sir Humphrey would be so proud of them.

    1. dephormation.org.uk
      Facepalm

      Re: ISC: "We're on the case!"

      And the same bunch that did nothing about BT/Phorm.

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