Britain's foreign secretary tried to address concerns that Britain had used the US's Prism system to intercept personal information from internet giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google.
UK denies it illegally spied on its own citizens
LONDON // The UK foreign secretary, William Hague, yesterday dismissed claims that the country's intelligence services had bypassed the law to spy on its citizens. Mr Hague tried to address concerns that Britain had used the US's Prism system to intercept personal information from internet giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google.
"I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless," he told the British parliament.
Mr Hague was responding to fears raised last week that the UK government communications headquarters, GCHQ, the UK's centre for intelligence, had been using Prism, a controversial US National Security Agency (NSA) programme.
He said he could not comment in detail about specific allegations raised by leaked documents about the Prism system, and acknowledged the "close and unique" intelligence relationship Britain had with the US.
But he rejected the notion that any intelligence sharing was outside a legal framework.
"To intercept communications requires a warrant signed by me or another minister of state," he told MPs. "Considerations of privacy are at the forefront of our minds."
British intelligence services, he added, were subject to "one of the strongest systems of checks and balances in the world".
Malcolm Rifkind, the Conservative chairman of parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), had earlier told parliament that the framework within which UK intelligence agencies operate was clear and legal, normally ministerial authority had to be sought to scrutinise private communications.
He said, however, that some invasion of privacy was necessary to tackle the threat of terrorism.
Mr Rifkind is to travel to the US to ask questions about the Prism programme. The ISC is today expected to receive a full report from GCHQ on the use, if any, of Prism.
Questioning Mr Hague in parliament, Douglas Alexander, the opposition foreign spokesman, said the government and the ISC now faced a "heavy burden" to investigate whether any legal breaches had been made, and suggested Mr Hague's remark to the BBC over the weekend that "if you are a law- abiding citizen you have nothing to fear" was overstated.
Mr Hague conceded that mistakes happened and tools sometimes required "updating", but emphasised that any data obtained by Britain from the US was subject to the "full range" of legal safeguards.
The Prism system was revealed last week after a whistleblower showed the Guardian, a British newspaper, documents that suggested US intelligence agencies had been secretly gathering information about people with the help of major internet companies.
The documents suggested that Prism allowed the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Intelligence direct access to the systems of nine of the world's top internet companies and that GCHQ had access as well.