David Cameron has defended the activities of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which was revealed this year to have accessed metadata of millions of Internet users, and to have cracked the online security encryptions that protect the general public from snooping.
"We have very good rules in this country," Cameron told ITV's The Agenda yesterday. "If a telephone call is going to be listened in to, that has to be signed off by the Home Secretary personally."
He went on to say, "I'm satisfied we have pretty strong safeguards. I thought part of the reaction to the The Guardian story was - big surprise, spies learn to spy... it's to help keep us safe."
GCHQ came under fire after its involvement in the NSA-led PRISM scheme of mass-data collection was revealed by leaker Edward Snowden. It was found to have conducted a programme known as "Tempora", in which data was extracted from transatlantic undersea fibre-optic cables, and processed for intelligence purposes in massive data centres.
It has been alleged that GCHQ collects larger amounts of metadata than even the NSA, and its reach is even said to include recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, Facebook posts, and users' Internet history. About 850,000 people in the UK and US have security clearance to access the data.
In his interview with ITV, the Prime Minister said that he had some sympathy with early disclosures released by WikiLeaks, but that later mass releases had gone too far.
"You do feel sympathy for them. Some of the things they uncover...it's great some of that information has been revealed. Transparency...helps keeps governments and politicians honest," he said. Nevertheless, "There are some things the Government has to keep secret for national security, for people's safety. That has to be part of the debate too."
The statements come as three campaign groups launched proceedings against GCHQ's campaign of mass data-gathering in the European Court of Human Rights. The groups claim that spy agency's actions are illegal under European laws.