Sir Tim Berners-Lee, granddaddy of the internet, has attacked the NSA and GCHQ for their "appalling and foolish" cracking of online encryption.
He warned that spooks' attempts to break encryption standards played into the hands of cyber-criminals and rival states, saying spies were "naive" to think their own techniques would not be used against them.
“It's naïve to imagine that if you introduce a weakness into a system you will be the only one to use it,” said Berners-Lee, adding: “I'm very sympathetic to attempts to increase security against organised crime, but you have to distinguish yourself from the criminal.”
In an interview with the Guardian, the father of the internet called for a "full and frank public debate" on digital surveillance.
His comments came ahead of an unprecedented inquiry into surveillance, which will see chief spooks grilled in full public view this afternoon.
"Whistleblowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role in society," Sir Tim said. "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."
The coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks "has been in the public interest and has uncovered many important issues which now need a full and frank public debate", he continued.
The heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ will be interview on live TV today for the first time. Starting at 2pm, Sir John Sawers, MI6 chief, Sir Iain Lobban, director of GCHQ, and Andrew Parker, director general of MI5, will appear in front of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).
According to a statement on the ISC website, a slight delay (reportedly of two minutes) would be used on the video feed, just in case the spooks let something controversial slip out.
"The session will give an insight into the world of intelligence and the work the agencies do on behalf of the UK," the ISC said. "It represents a very significant step forward in terms of the openness and transparency of the agencies. The Committee will question the agency heads on the work of the agencies, their current priorities and the threats to the UK. Among other things it will cover the terrorist threat, regional instability and weapons proliferation, cyber security and espionage.”
"However,” continued the ISC, “since this is a public session, it will not cover details of intelligence capabilities or techniques, ongoing operations or sub judice matters."
Edward Snowden sparked the surveillance scandal after revealing the existence of an NSA spying scheme called PRISM and a comparable British one called TEMPORA, operated by GCHQ.
A group of 28 Tory MPs have written to the Guardian to protest against its continued publication of Snowden's revelations. The letter said publishing the secret material "runs the risk of compromising the vital work of the institutions, processes and people who protect the safety of this country". ®