Scottish Government questioned on secret surveillance system with UK spooks

Scottish Greens and Liberal Democrats raise Snowden leaks in parliament 

SCOTLAND’S JUSTICE SECRETARY has said he is confident Police Scotland follow legal surveillance rules – but any questions on secret service mass surveillance should be directed towards the UK home secretary Theresa May.

Government minister Michael Matheson MSP faced questions from John Finnie (Scottish Greens) and Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrats) over the legality of the secret Scottish surveillance system revealed in recent Edward Snowden leaks.

CommonSpace reported that the little-known policing body the Scottish Recording Centre (SRC) was given access to information logs of millions of communications of phone, internet and social media activity by the GCHQ spy agency. 

The revelations of the MILKWHITE programme were the first leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden to implicate Scottish authorities in the UK spy system of mass surveillance. 

Finnie said the story provided further evidence that the mass surveillance system was “out of control” and contrary to human rights law. 

Addressing Matheson, Finnie asked: “We learn for instance that GCHQ feel they don’t need the Investigatory Powers legislation. That’s is of course because they are doing it anyway. But nothing absolves your post from defending the privacy of those living in Scotland.”

“Is all police work in Scotland, including liaison collaborative work with external agencies agencies, carried out in accordance within a strict Scottish legal and policy framework? And will you publish that framework in respect to the surveillance regime?”, he added. 
Digital rights campaigners and researchers called on the Scottish Government to pursue its own independent approach to digital security and surveillance following the story. 

Matheson, seeking to clarify the Scottish Government and Police Scotland’s role in the SRC, replied: “The operation of GCHQ is a matter for the UK Government, in the way in which they undertake their responsibilities. There are laws and regulations that are applied to GCHQ in how they operate.”

“I certainly would not condone any practices which operated out with the law or were conducted in an humane way,” Matheson said. 

Police Scotland are one of nine UK agencies - alongside MI5, MI6, and GCHQ - that are accountable to the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) for intercypting information on security or policing grounds. 

Police Scotland’s chief constable, Phil Gormley, has powers under section six of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 to apply for ‘interception warrants’.

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur also sought further transparency surrounding the SRC story, asking if assurances had been sought that the data processed by the SRC was acquired lawfully.

Matheson replied: “I suspect that the member is referring to information that was passed by GCHQ, which has been suggested in the press over the course of the weekend. As I’ve already made clear, the operation and the way GCHQ operates is a matter for the UK Government, and the Home Secretary in particular.”

“I am confident that Police Scotland is operating within the legal framework.”

Security surveillance in Scotland is only part of a far wider controversial UK mass surveillance structure. 

Last week Tory and Labour MPs endorsed the Snoopers Charter - which seeks to extend UK surveillance, which was previously found to be illegal. 

Finnie has said he will continue to challenge the legal status of the bulk collection of communications.

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Picture courtesy of George Rex