LONDON — Confronted with mounting concern over possible violation of civil liberties, lawmakers in Britain said Thursday for the first time that they would hear evidence from the public in their examination of the mass spying conducted by American and British national security authorities.
Malcolm Rifkind, head of Parliament’s intelligence committee, acknowledged that laws regulating surveillance were written mostly before the development of technology that allows governments to collect vast amounts of electronic data on ordinary people.
In light of the leaks by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which revealed state access on a gigantic scale to everyday electronic communications, Rifkind said it was time to ask not just whether such spying is technically within the law, but whether people’s privacy is being unacceptably compromised.
“There is a balance to be found between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security,” Rifkind said in a statement Thursday. “An informed and responsible debate is needed.”
Parliament is to seek input from the general public to “ensure that the committee can consider the full range of opinions expressed on these topics,” Rifkind said.
The move by Parliament marks the first time that the government has conceded the need to engage British society more broadly regarding what is being done in the name of keeping them safe. The acknowledgment comes amid a flurry of criticism in the past few days of the Guardian newspaper for publishing the sensitive documents leaked to it by Snowden, who has sought asylum in Russia.
The trove of classified information showed that British authorities, along with the NSA in the United States, have developed the ability to harvest massive amounts of data from cellphone and Internet networks, including by tapping into the cables beneath the ocean floor that carry Web traffic.
Earlier this year, an investigation by Rifkind’s committee concluded that British intelligence agents did not overstep their authority or break the law in their collection of data and their use of information provided by the U.S.
But the lawmakers also said it was time to consider whether the current legal framework on intelligence-gathering was still workable or no longer adequate in the digital age. While agents must search for “the needles in the haystacks that might be crucial” to protecting Britain from terrorism and other threats, that need should be weighed against the “impact on people’s privacy,” Rifkind said.
His comments Thursday followed a crescendo in the criticism leveled at the Guardian for spilling government secrets, including a swipe at the newspaper in Parliament by Prime Minister David Cameron.
“What has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways the Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security advisor and Cabinet secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files,” Cameron told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “It knows that what it is dealing with is dangerous for national security.”
Last week, the director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency denounced the publication of the NSA documents as a “gift” to terrorists, and a former senior intelligence official described it as “the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever.” Right-wing tabloids have also loudly criticized the left-wing Guardian on the Snowden leaks.
To deal with the fallout, Rifkind said his parliamentary committee would continue examining evidence from intelligence officials and would question them in hearings behind closed doors. But some proceedings will be open to members of the public to attend and to contribute to the debate. Britons can also make written submissions to the committee with their views on mass governmental surveillance.
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