Sunday

17th Nov 2019

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).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 year's of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

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."

Feature

Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act

"If evil is not defeated, it tends to expand", Natalia Magnitsky, the widow of a Russian anti-corruption activist, has said, as EU diplomats discuss human rights sanctions 10 years after his death.

Commission defends Breton's Atos over police data

The European Commission defended Atos for hosting EU police data, despite its own public guidelines that state operational and technical copies should not be entrusted to third parties. Atos former CEO Thierry Breton is set to become a European commissioner.

News in Brief

  1. Catalan politicians extradition hearing postponed
  2. Germany: EU banking union deal possible in December
  3. EIB: no more funding of fossil-fuel projects
  4. UK defence chief: Russia could trigger World War III
  5. Hungary's Varhelyi will face more questions
  6. Police put former Berlusconi MEP Comi under house arrest
  7. MEPs criticise Poland for criminalising sex education
  8. UK will not name new commissioner before election

Stalling on VAT reform costing billions, says Commission

German media outlet Correctiv, along with other newsrooms, have revealed how criminals annually cheat EU states out of billions in VAT fraud. The EU Commission says solutions exist - but member states refuse to budge on tax unanimity.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  3. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  5. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  6. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  7. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  9. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021

Latest News

  1. France unveils new model EU enlargement
  2. Key moments for new commission This WEEK
  3. EU threatens legal action against UK over commissioner
  4. Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room
  5. Green MEPs unconvinced by Romanian commissioner
  6. EU states fell short on sharing refugees, say auditors
  7. Hungary's commissioner-to-be grilled over loyalty to Orban
  8. Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us