GCHQ – General Chit-chat, Hazy Questions?

Photo by Jenny Mealing (jennifrog) used under Creative Commons.

Yesterday’s questioning of intelligence chiefs by Members of Parliament is a first in British history. The momentous occasion was preceded by anticipation that the three big authorities, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, would offer an open and transparent account of the extent of their surveillance operations, in particular GCHQ. While mass data collection has been suspected, or in a few cases disclosed, for some time by the UK security agencies. However, I was struck by how little new information was actually shared and by the disappointingly weak line of questioning. One important area, for example, which wasn’t clarified at all was how the practice of sifting through who is a ‘threat’ and who isn’t is qualified, neither was the deliberate and systematic undermining of international cryptographic standards. The responses in the areas of “mass data collection” even appeared to give the lie to earlier assurance that only metadata was collected and that content never was, yet that area was never explored,. This assurance has now given way to a somewhat disingenuous assurance that “the people who work in GCHQ” would simply do not loo at the content, unless sufficient justification exists. In fact, they would “leave the building” if they were asked to “ Snoop”… Maybe part of the obvious disconnect is that those earlier assurances came from politicians themselves rather than the intelligence community.

For any commercial entity the Data Protection Act regulates and governs processing of personal information. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement, of course,  benefit from a number of exceptions from those same rules, so it has been left indefinite who in the back rooms is looking out for the interests of the general public. A vague personal assurance that data belonging to “non-threats” are not viewed and that candidates for GCHQ would not be employed if they were the sort to be tempted to do so, is not the same as a bound contract within a legal framework. Besides, somebody must have trusted Edward Snowden in a similar way at some point…

Speaking of Snowden, it would have also been helpful for some questions to have been asked to shed light on the relationships between GCHQ and foreign intelligence agencies; do they accept requests from other nations to surrender their data to UK citizens? A recent report on mass surveillance of personal data that came to light on the same day as the inquiry shows that NSA sent millions of records every day from internal networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters. The US National Security Agency (NSA) is clearly working in collaboration with GCHQ, just how much is UK law helping the NSA to circumvent US law and vice versa and what is the relationship here? Just for example, how does a contractor in the US, to US intelligence services, end up with access to so much highly damaging sensitive information about British spy agencies?

It will be very interesting to see how the requirements of the security agencies, which were voiced in the February 2013 response to the Draft Communications Data Bill, (Intelligence Committee response, “Access to communications data by the intelligence and security Agencies (PDF)“) influence the next draft of that same bill. The somewhat chilling conclusion of that Intelligence Committee response includes the statement that:

“Any move to introduce judicial oversight of the authorisation process could have a significant impact on the Agencies’ operational work. It would also carry a financial cost. We are not convinced that such a move is justified in relation to the Agencies, and believe that retrospective review by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who provides quasi-judicial oversight, is a sufficient safeguard.”

Of course there will be further sessions both in camera and hopefully more public questioning. While it is clear that, in the interests of national security,  many aspects of surveillance programmes cannot and should not be revealed; the level of public trust in the very people that have been charged with protecting our liberty is at such a low that only unprecedented steps stand any chance of restoring our faith.

It seems we truly do live in Interesting Times, which is more often that not, a curse.

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