Claims that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency used private data from US security agencies to circumvent the law are baseless, British foreign secretary William Hague said today.
Mr Hague told MPs that Britain had one of the strongest systems of checks and balances in the world, adding that while he understood public concern at recent accusations linking GCHQ to a US internet monitoring programme, they could be assured there was proper scrutiny.
The foreign secretary said he received hundreds of requests from the security services to carry out covert operations every year.
Each, he said, had been reviewed by lawyers to ensure they complied with a strict legal framework.
Earlier prime minister David Cameron said Britain's spies acted within the law following revelations the intelligence agencies had received data collected secretly by the US from the world's biggest internet companies.
British lawmakers have demanded answers from the government after the Guardian newspaper suggested the US might have handed over phone and internet data about Britons, potentially allowing spies to circumvent current legislation.
The information was gathered under a top secret US programme codenamed Prism which collected emails, internet chat and files directly from the servers of companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
“I’m satisfied that we have intelligence agencies that do a fantastically important job for this country to keep us safe, and they operate within the law,” Mr Cameron told reporters today.
He said it was vital that the intelligence agencies worked within a proper legal framework but said he was happy that that was the case.
“I am satisfied from the questions I ask and always will continue to ask that they operate in a way that is proper and that is fitting,” he said. “They also operate within a framework that they (are) open to proper scrutiny by the intelligence and security committee.”
But former home secretary David Blunket said the US National Security Agency circumvents UK law by offering, rather than being asked for, intelligence from global websites to their British counterparts.
Mr Blunkett was home secretary at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
He told MPs: “Yes we do need to dampen down fear, yes we do need to reinforce the fact that we are engaged in international cyberattack and the dangers that come from international global terrorism.
“But in doing that, in reinforcing and reassuring people about the way we handle their data, can we take a closer look at how other agencies - including the NSA and our friends and colleagues in the US - use material gathered from network and service providers and offer it rather than having it sought from them in a way that makes authorisation extremely difficult?”
Mr Hague responded: “ speaks of his own experience of the highly professional work of the agencies.
“The point he raises reinforces the importance of our agencies applying and upholding the laws of the UK about the data that they obtain from other intelligence agencies around the world. There may well be occasions over the coming years where we need to update and improve those procedures to take account of changes in technology.”
MPs have asked whether British spies might have circumvented a law that demands senior-level approval for intercepting emails and internet data about people in the United Kingdom, by simply asking for it from the United States.
"One of the big questions that's being asked is: if British intelligence agencies want to seek to know the content of emails, can they get round the normal law in the UK by simply asking an American agency to provide that information?" Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, told BBC Radio 4.
“The law’s actually quite clear: if the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the UK then they actually have to get lawful authority,” he said.
“Normally, that means ministerial authority, and that applies equally, whether they’re going to do the intercept themselves or whether they’re going to ask somebody else to do it on their behalf.”
US law puts limits on the government’s authority to snoop at home but virtually no restrictions on US spies eavesdropping on the communications of foreigners, including in allied countries, such as Britain, with which Washington shares intelligence.
The Guardian said it had obtained documents which showed GCHQ had generated 197 intelligence reports from Prism last year.
GCHQ is the responsibility of the foreign secretary.