Home secretary Theresa May has claimed that the UK does not have officially sanctioned surveillance powers.
Speaking at the Lord Mayor's Defence and Security Lecture at Mansion House, May said such powers are limited and only used at certain times. This contradicts previous reports that the UK and US governments have been using mass data-snooping powers to fight terrorism, through operations such as PRISM.
"Technology has become essential, not just to the likes of you and me but to organised criminals and terrorists. Far from having some fictitious mastery over all this technology we, in democratic states, face the significant risk of being caught out by it," she said.
"Governments have always reserved the power to monitor communications and to collect data about communications when it is necessary and proportionate to do so. I do not take my responsibilities lightly. I approve warrants only on the basis of detailed intelligence and a reasoned explanation of their likely benefit."
While the UK government is accused of conducting its own Operation Tempora, a PRISM-style surveillance programme, May said this is not the case at all.
"It is fair to conclude that this government has performed well in preserving individual freedom while defending our national security. But you might not believe that if you listen to some of the things that are said in the debate about privacy and security," she said.
"There is no programme of mass surveillance and there is no surveillance state. Surveillance of this nature would be illegal, and I only ever sign warrants for limited and specific proposals. The very idea that we could or would want to monitor everyone and all their communications, trawling at will through their private lives, is absurd."
Loz Kaye, leader of the UK Pirate Party, disputed claims that the government is lacking in power and capability. "Yet again Theresa May is trying to open the door to bring back the Snoopers' Charter. Despite her claiming it is 'fictitious', we now know thanks to Snowden that the UK has an unprecedented ability to carry out mass surveillance," he said.
Far from protecting us, mass surveillance dismantles the very freedoms this government claims to be upholding. This is not abstract as she claims, it is a real danger for our democracy."
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