Wednesday

19th Sep 2018

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 18 year's of archives. 30 days 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."

Opinion

Building a Europe more resilient to terrorism

One year to the day since the terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, the commissioner for home affairs spells out what action the EU is taking now to protect against further attacks.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  4. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  5. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  6. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  7. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  8. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  9. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  10. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  12. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want

Latest News

  1. Real Brexit progress needed by October, Barnier says
  2. Poland to face EU top court on rule of law
  3. Austria's EU presidency: a bridge over troubled water?
  4. EU promotes 'Egypt model' to reduce migrant numbers
  5. Tensions mount over Kosovo-Serbia deal
  6. New book: Why war is coming
  7. EU parliament will not budge on office expenses
  8. Why Orban's project to reshape EU politics will be unsuccessful

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  2. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  4. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  5. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  8. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  10. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  12. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us