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4th Dec 2021

UK spy chiefs defend mass-snooping on Europeans

  • Snowden files say the UK and US have tapped undersea cables which carry internet and phone data (Photo: submarinecablemap.com)

The head of UK spy agency GCHQ, Iain Lobban, has said leaks on mass-surveillance have made it harder to catch terrorists.

“We’ve seen terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in south Asia, discussing the revelations in specific terms,” he told a hearing at the British parliament in London on Thursday (7 November).

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He said the past five months of global media coverage on leaks by former US spy contractor Edward Snowden have made his job “far, far harder for years to come.”

Lobban, along with the heads of the UK's internal and foreign intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, was queried for 90 minutes by the parliament’s intelligence oversight committee.

He defended GCHQ's methods, which are said to include tapping undersea cables that carry internet and phone data.

GCHQ's so-called Tempura operation reportedly sucks up 21 petabytes of data each day, stores it in a central database, sifts it, and shares it with its US equivalent, the NSA.

Other Snowden revelations say GCHQ and the NSA have introduced "back doors" or bugs in software designed to protect banking and commerce from cyber thieves.

Their actions have been described by privacy advocates, such as the London-based NGO, Privacy International, as creating a "new Wild West" on the web.

But Lobban noted that he needs a "ring of secrecy" to do his work and insisted that he operates within British law.

He described the internet as an “enormous hay field” used by terrorists to plot attacks.

“We are very, very well aware that within that haystack there is going to be plenty of hay which is innocent communication, innocent people, not just British,” he noted.

He said none of his 6,000 employees spy on ordinary people: “If they were asked to snoop, I would not have them in the work force. They’d leave the building."

But for his part, David Bickford, a former legal director of MI5 and MI6, told MEPs in a parallel hearing in Brussels the same day that British parliamentary oversight is "not adequate" to stop abuse.

Bickford also noted that spies must have the means to fight criminals who have "access to the most sophisticated forms of communication."

He resisted calls by Privacy International for a "root and branch" reform of intelligence laws, saying "if the number of regulations proliferate … you will stifle the agencies and you will not be protected."

But he poured scorn on the British regime, in which covert operations are authorised by government ministers under political "pressure," while MPs look into some cases of abuse "ex post facto."

He urged EU countries to adopt the French model instead, in which judges weigh the needs of national security against people's rights "at the coal face" of ongoing operations.

"The adoption of the French system, the examining judge system, allows intelligence agencies to do their work while limiting the margins for abuse," he noted.

Meanwhile, a new study by seven academics says British, Dutch, French, German and Swedish snooping violates the EU Treaty, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It also says EU agencies, such as the joint police body, Europol, and the EU foreign service's intelligence-sharing branch, IntCen, are most likely using data "stolen" from European citizens.

"It's no longer credible to say the EU has no legal competence and should do nothing on this," one of the authors, Sergio Carrera, a Spanish jurist, told the EU parliament.

He urged MEPs to block an EU-US free trade deal unless the US and EU countries fully disclose their surveillance activities.

He also said MEPs should push EU countries to draft a "professional code for the transnational management of data," and to set up a permanent, EU-level intelligence oversight body.

The idea that espionage is a national prerogative has been used by British and Dutch authorities to deflect EU queries into the scandal.

The British ambassador to the EU, John Cunliffe, in a letter to the EU parliament last month said that Lobban has no obligation to answer MEPs' questions because "national security is the sole responsibility of member states."

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