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MI5 chief calls for more up-to-date surveillance powers

The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has called for more up-to-date surveillance powers and said telecoms companies had an ethical responsibility to provide more help in monitoring the communications of suspected terrorists and paedophiles.

In the first live media interview ever given by a senior British intelligence official, Parker defended the British surveillance system and backed the government's plans for new surveillance powers.

The interview, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, came after the home secretary, Theresa May,summoned the biggest US internet providers and British phone companies to a meeting on Tuesday to seek their support for her new "snooper's charter'' surveillance bill.

The companies were asked at the meeting for their views on how to make the new legislation work in practice and were told that May had only a very narrow timeframe as the government wants to publish a workable draft bill in October.

The investigatory powers legislation is expected to include powers to require internet and phone companies to collect and store for 12 months the browsing histories of customers along with detailed records of voice calls, messaging and text services.

It would require the companies, including those based abroad such as Google and Facebook, to give the police and security services access to this bulk data.

A report for the prime minister by a former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has suggested a new international treaty is needed to secure the US companies' co-operation.

It has been reported that the phone and internet executives expressed concerns to May about the costs of storing such large amounts of data, about the impact on their customers' trust, about civil liberties' concerns and the need for judicial oversight.

Asked whether he supported increased surveillance powers, Parker repeatedly said that it was for parliament to make that decision, not him.

"It is completely for ministers to propose, and parliament to decide. It's a fundamental point about what MI5 is. It's for us to follow what's set by parliament, and that's what we do."

But he said it was important the law was updated so it was "modern and transparent" and "describes as straightforwardly as it can what MI5 does these days".

The main thrust of the 20-minute interview was to stress the importance to the intelligence agencies of being able to track communications.

He said the intelligence agencies needed to be able to navigate their way round the internet and be able to join the dots to help foil potential terrorist attacks. "It's in nobody's interests that terrorists should be able to plot and communicate out of the reach of authorities."

In a statement released by MI5 after the interview, Parker pressed the point home. He said: "Today we are being stretched by a growing threat from terrorism, and from Syria in particular, combined with the constant challenge of technological change.

"The way we work these days has changed as technology has advanced. Our success depends on us and our partner agencies having sufficient up-to-date capabilities, used within a clear framework of law against those who threaten this country."

The Today programme appearance was the first live interview by a sitting chief of MI5 in its 106-year history, though Parker, like the heads of the other intelligence agencies, has appeared before the parliamentary intelligence committee.

It is a sign that the intelligence agencies no longer feel they can work totally in the dark and that they have to become at least a bit more transparent.

The intelligence agencies have been forced on the defensive as a result of the revelations by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden two years ago about the scale of surveillance by America's National Security Agency and its British equivalent, GCHQ.

Some of the major internet companies have been less cooperative, stung by the revelations and a backlash by customers concerned about privacy. Some have been making encrypted messaging and chat more widely available, which the intelligence agencies say is making their work more difficult.

Parker said: "MI5 and others need to be able to navigate the internet to find terrorist communication, we need to be able to use data sets to be able to join the dots to be able to find and stop the terrorists who mean us harm before they are able to bring plots to fruition.

"We have been pretty successful at that in recent years but it is becoming more difficult to do it as technology changes faster and faster [and] encryption comes in."

Asked about concern expressed by the FBI about parts of the internet "going dark" - hidden by encryption from law enforcement and security agencies - Parker said it was a very serious issue and required the internet companies to provide help.

"It requires the cooperation of the companies who run and provide services over the internet that we all use. It is in no one's interest that terrorists would be able to plot and communicate out of the reach of any authorities with the proper legal power."

Asked what would happen if the internet companies still did not cooperate even if the proposed legislation is passed, Parker was noncommital. "It will be a continuing challenge as technology shifts."

Parker said online data encryption was creating a situation where the police and intelligence agencies "can no longer obtain under proper legal warrant the communication of people they believe to be terrorists".

He said the terrorist threat to the UK was rated severe, meaning an attack is likely, and that six alleged terrorist plots had been disrupted over the last year, the highest number he had seen in his 32 years at MI5.

This was partly the result of the rise of Islamic State, Parker said, but the shape of the threat had also changed because of the internet and social media, which was being exploited by Isis.

He welcomed the prospect of new legislation governing surveillance, acknowledging that the existing law, introduced in 2000, was out of date.

Responding to privacy campaigners, he insisted MI5 (which deals with domestic threats) and its partners, MI6 (which deals with overseas intelligence-gathering), and the main listening agency, GCHQ, were not engaged in browsing through the private communications of the population as a whole, but that monitoring was targeted. He said he did not think it was in anyone's interest that terrorists, paedophiles and others should not be targeted.

Explaining why he had agreed to do the live interview, Parker said: "There is a role in society for people like me to help increase public understanding about the nature of the work and the sorts of threats that are around, what it is necessary for us to do and the way we are focused only on the people who mean us harm as the privacy discussion rolls on."

[Source: By Ewen MacAskill and Alan Travis, The Guardian, London, 17Sep15]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 21Sep15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.