November 7, 2013 10:29 am

Tim Berners-Lee criticises UK and US spy agencies

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, has strongly criticised UK and US spy agencies for cracking encryption codes and warned that the systems to oversee the organisations had failed.

The British computer scientist also called for a “full and frank debate” on internet surveillance. His comments come as the heads of the UK’s three intelligence services appear at a public parliamentary hearing for the first time on Tuesday.

The officials – Sir John Sawers of MI6, Andrew Parker of MI5 and Sir Iain Lobban of GCHQ – are expected to face intense scrutiny from the intelligence and security committee about the extent of their surveillance operations in the wake of the extensive revelations by Edward Snowden, the former contractor of the US National Security Agency.

GCHQ, the communications intelligence service, has come under particular criticism, including from European allies, about its activities.

Sir Tim told the Guardian that spies breaking into encrypted systems would undermine public trust. “When you take away the safe space, you take away a lot of the power of human problem solving,” he warned.

He also criticised parliament and others whose duty it is to oversee the security services. “We need powerful agencies to combat criminal activity online – but any powerful agency needs checks and balances and, based on recent revelations, it seems the current system of checks and balances has failed,” he said in the interview.

Sir David Omand, a former head of GCHQ, agreed there should be greater disclosure about the spy agencies’ surveillance. “We need an informed public to support public security,” he told the BBC on Thursday.

Sir Tim’s comments and parliamentarians’ push for greater transparency reflects growing UK public demand for the government to publish more detailed surveillance data – in line with similar moves in the US.

A ComRes survey commissioned by Big Brother Watch, the campaign group, found a strong level of public demand for more transparency in light of revelations about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance.

About two-thirds of those polled said the government should publish more data about how surveillance powers are used, while 70 per cent said British companies should publish reports on how often they receive requests for customer data from the police and security services.

Big Brother Watch has called a meeting of companies that were identified in its report to discuss the findings. Google, Microsoft and Facebook have published reports about the data they are asked for, and the companies want permission from the US government to publish more.

On Monday, Apple revealed that it had received 12,442 requests from 41 countries in the first half of 2013 for information about when, where or by whom an iPhone or iPad was first activated. It complied with almost three-quarters of those demands but none of these included national security-related requests.

The government already details how many overall data requests it makes to private sector companies. Last year, more than 570,000 requests were made – up 15 per cent from 2011 – by the police, security services and various other public bodies.

Big Brother Watch wants greater breakdown of who is using the powers, or what types of crime are being investigated.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Transparency is an essential part of ensuring surveillance powers are not abused and maintaining public confidence that they are being used proportionately. Much more information could be published without any risk to security.

“British companies are not bound by secrecy laws from disclosing how many data requests they receive and they should follow the lead of companies like Microsoft and Google in publishing basic information about how many times they hand over customer data.”

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