Inventor of world wide web condemns ‘dysfunctional and unaccountable’ oversight as intelligence chiefs face MPs
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist who created the world wide web, has called for a “full and frank public debate” over internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ, warning that the system of checks and balances to oversee the agencies has failed.
The damning assessment was given as the heads of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 prepared to face questioning by MPs in the Commons on Thursday. In an unprecedented hearing in Westminster, questions over the conduct of Britain’s spy agencies will be raised when the heads of the three secret services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – go before parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
The 90-minute session will give the nine-strong committee, led by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a chance to question the agencies about the reach of the mass surveillance programmes that have provoked a global debate about privacy in the internet age. While critics have often despaired of the ISC’s lack of clout, Rifkind has promised to use new powers to provide robust scrutiny of the agencies and restore public confidence in what they have been doing.
As the inventor of the global system of inter-connectivity known as the web, with its now ubiquitous www and http, Berners-Lee is uniquely qualified to comment on the internet spying revealed by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In an interview with the Guardian, he expressed particular outrage that GCHQ and the NSA had weakened online security by cracking much of the online encryption on which hundreds of millions of users rely to guard data privacy.
He said the agencies’ decision to break the encryption software was appalling and foolish, as it directly contradicted efforts of the US and UK governments to fight cybercrime and cyberwarfare, which they have identified as a national security priority. Berners-Lee also said it was a betrayal of the technology industry.
In contrast to several senior British politicians – including the prime minister, David Cameron – who have called for the Guardian to be investigated over reporting of the Snowden leaks, Berners-Lee sees the news organisation and Snowden as having acted in the public interest.
“Whistleblowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role in society. 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.
As the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that seeks to forward global standards for the web, Berners-Lee is a leading authority on the power and the vulnerabilities of the internet.
He said the Guardian’s coverage of the Snowden leaks had to be seen within the context of the failure of oversight of GCHQ’s and the NSA’s surveillance activities. “Here is where whistleblowing and responsible reporting can step in to protect society’s interests.
“It seems clear that the Guardian’s reporting around the scale and scope of state surveillance has been in the public interest and has uncovered many important issues which now need a full and frank public debate.”
Talking in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berners-Lee said that though he had anticipated many of the surveillance activities exposed by Snowden, including taps on the internet through the Prism program, he had not been prepared for the scale of the NSA/GCHQ operations. “I didn’t realise it would be so big,” he said.
At worst, such spying could damage the public’s confidence in the intimate privacy of the internet as a free and safe place to interact. “When you take away the safe space, you take away a lot of the power of human problem solving,” he warned.
Berners-Lee will mark the 25th anniversary of his invention of the web next year by campaigning for greater public awareness of threats to the internet and by pushing for a charter that would codify the rights of all its users. As head of the World Wide Web Foundation, on 22 November he will release the 2013 Web Index, which measures the web’s growth, utility and impact across about 80 countries – including indicators on censorship and surveillance.
Former US vice-president Al Gore has described the activities of the National Security Agency as “outrageous” and “completely unacceptable” and said whistleblower Edward Snowden has “revealed evidence” of crimes against the US constitution.
Gore, speaking Tuesday night at McGill University in Montreal, said he was in favour of using surveillance to ensure national security, but Snowden’s revelations showed that those measures had gone too far.
“I say that as someone who was a member of the National Security Council working in the White House and getting daily briefings from the CIA,” Gore said, in comments reported by the Canadian Press.
Gore had previously said he believed the practice of the NSA collecting US citizens phone records was unlawful and “not really the American way”, but his comments on Tuesday represent his strongest criticism yet.
Asked about Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whose revelations have been reported extensively by the Guardian, Gore said the leaks had revealed uncovered unconstitutional practices.
“He has revealed evidence of what appears to be crimes against the Constitution of the United States,” Gore said.