The statement came mid a growing furor over a massive US government Internet data-aggregation program being used by the National Security Agency to access data on millions of Americans through popular firms like Verizon or Facebook.
Mr. Hague told the House of Commons that all British data obtained was subject to UK safeguards and controls – including the data that American allies collected and supplied to the UK via the NSA PRISM surveillance program, whose existence was revealed on Sunday by British newspaper The Guardian.
“It has been suggested that GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence agency] uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the United Kingdom," Hague told members of Parliament. "I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless."
“Our agencies practice and uphold UK law at all times, even when dealing with information from outside the United Kingdom,” he said.
The Guardian named the whistleblower – at his own request – as former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden. He said the PRISM system gave US intelligence access to the world’s top Internet firms, including Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft, with the information gathered later shared with Britain’s GCHQ spy headquarters. Because the intelligence was collected overseas, it is unclear whether it would be subject to UK privacy laws.
End run around British law?
Earlier in Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron said the country’s intelligence agencies always "operate with the law" and were subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
But surveillance expert Kirstie Ball at the Open University Business School says the use of information provided to it by a foreign power was a grey area. She assumed it would need a court order or ministerial approval, but said not enough detail was known about the information exchange.
“There is a long tradition of wiretapping in the US going back to the 1950s and 1960s," says Dr. Ball, "but it’s different here in Europe, where there are strict rules on accessing information. This would simply not be allowed here. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act sets out clear rules on surveillance but from what’s been reported, a lot of the information was gathered abroad so it’s a grey area."
“One of the things Mr. Snowden said was that colleagues at the NSA were constructing suspicion out of the data, which is not the same as monitoring information, which is a concern,” she adds.
Mr. Snowden had been staying in a Hong Kong hotel since last month, in hope that the Chinese city's independent courts would resist efforts by the US to extradite him to face trial. Mike Rispoli at campaign group Privacy International says Snowden’s actions were "very brave," but that it's hard to predict what Snowden's fate will be.
“I’d hate to speculate what’s going to happen to him," says Mr. Rispoli. "We don’t know what the Chinese government or the Icelandic government [which Snowden hopes will grant him asylum] will do, but we have seen Republicans in the US wanting him extradited. And the track record of the Obama administration indicates they will take a strict line on it, trying to get him back."
Cause for debate
Mr. Rispoli adds that Snowden's leak will help spark a debate on information gathering and confidentiality. “While I think most people and groups knew some of this might have been going on, I think people will be surprised how often and the scope of the surveillance. We need an open debate in government, by advocates, scholars in the media – not something hidden away in secret.”
But for Ian Walden, a professor of information and communications law at the University of London, the interesting question was how the US agencies obtained the information. “These large corporations – Google, Facebook, and others – have been the great American success story and that gives US intelligence agencies a big advantage."
“I think people who use Google, Yahoo, and the other services might want to know whether US intelligence has been given free access or had to get permission," he says. "I have not seen the answer to that yet.”