The unprecedented lawsuit brought against the British Government and its communication, security, intelligence services by Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International has seen the world of secret surveillance propelled into the spotlight.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal last week cleared The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of illegally intercepting information from hundreds of cables carrying petabytes of data between the US, UK and Europe under the Tempora programme, stating “In respect of all intercepted information which they receive and retain by any of these means; the intelligence services are accountable.”
The US National Security Agency (NSA) shares data gathered from PRISM with the UK, whilst the UK correspondingly shares data from Tempora with the NSA. Groups such as Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International and Bytes for All state that the programme makes no distinction between surveillance of targeted suspects and private citizens. They claim the intercepted data includes recorded telephone calls, emails, text messages, social media entries and web browsing histories. They have vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that such activities, which monitor communications, are “common practice only for a government who chooses to ignore their citizens privacy in the name of national security.”
This all began in 2013, when whistleblower Edward Snowden, an NSA subcontractor, leaked top secret government documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post. Following the outcry in the US when details of the PRISM programme were published, the British security and intelligence services have come under scrutiny and been forced to publicly address some of their operational tactics.
Whilst many may gawp at the sheer scale of the data GCHQ is intercepting, up to 10 gigabytes a second, the organisation does apply a method of Massive Volume Reduction (MVR) designed to filter out unnecessary information. Peer to peer downloads for example, are mostly high volume but low value traffic. An initial filter discards this sort of information, instantly reducing the data intake by 30%.
Trigger words, emails and phone numbers of interest and targeted persons are picked up by other filters, so that only data of relevance is filtered through for follow up surveillance.
All this however, is acting within the law. Many people may disagree, but the government’s main task is to protect its citizens from terrorists, criminals and other people who pose a threat to the security of our society. GCHQ aren’t interested in the text messages and emails friends send to each other with a link to the latest buzzfeed quiz or lists of cute talking animals in fancy dress. One may trip a filter when using a trigger word in a message, however a quick look at the thread of previous messages and data will show that there is nothing worth following up and the information is discarded as per everything else.
When we hear on the news that someone has been arrested for tweeting about a bomb, this isn’t another sign that our civil liberties are being breached. The news is just that, giving us a story that’s newsworthy, sensationalising something out of the ordinary to pique our attention. One just needs to read the comments under an article online, or the thread of tweets under a trending hashtag to see the number of people who write highly incriminating and inappropriate things without being arrested. The organisers of the occupy movement were surely using texts and emails to arrange the protests. As we are to believe, this data will have been intercepted, yet people were still allowed to protest.
We don’t hear that the Tempora programme led to the arrest of three individuals who were planning a terror attack at the London 2012 Olympics. Or that it uncovered separate terror cells in the Midlands and Luton who were actively recruiting young jihadists. Or that it lead to the breakthrough in an ongoing case that uncovered a large scale international child exploitation ring operating out of the UK. When presented with these facts, would most people change their view?
But why are we all really so surprised that Governments spy on people? Is it really a shock, that following over a decade of approving over reaching anti-terrorism laws, governments continue to widen their reach? As much as well all like to believe the world revolves around us, in the grand scheme of things, individually, we’re very small fish in a very very large ocean. That’s not to say that such a system isn’t open to abuse. Just as the likes of Snowden are willing to leak such information, there will surely be people who will use it for their own purposes; nothing and no-one is perfect.
But the nature of terrorist threats has changed. The UK Government’s already difficult job has become even harder. Technological developments mean the internet now helps terrorists in a myriad of different ways; providing them with a platform from which to preach and radicalise, and to communicate with each other to plan, command and control their agendas.
In the face of this significant and enduring threat from terrorism, serious and organised crime and other national security threats, there is a crucial need for the Intelligence Services and for law enforcement agencies to be able to attain valuable intelligence in order to pursue their statutory objectives. The Government needs to be in a position to anticipate, detect, investigate, scrutinise and respond to any attack not only at home, but also on an international scale.
As traditional terror groups such as Al-Qaeda becomes more fragmented, the number of terror groups in operation is ever growing. We now have to contend with the likes of ISIS, Boko Haram, Jabhat al Nusra and Khorosan to name a few. Without the interception of external/foreign communications, the prospects of collecting any suitable intelligence about organisations operating both at home and abroad is greatly reduced.
Add to this the threat of organised crime, human trafficking and exploitation, modern slavery and industrial and cyber crime, it’s unlikely that the UK Government is going to be able to obtain all the intelligence it needs single handedly. It’s therefore necessary that the Government is able to share intelligence with foreign governments and agencies so that it is best placed to counter the threats.
It’s understandable that people may feel their civil liberties are being infringed, but one must not rely on the headlines from NGO’s and in the media before reading the details of what the programme actually entails. In an age when we’re all targets for terrorists, when we hear news stories of another child abuse scandal day after day, when large businesses are using an industry as a front for arms and drugs deals, the battle lines are no longer clearly drawn between them and us. It’s all come to our doorstep, sometimes ‘they’ are ‘us’, and if we have any chance of winning the unending fight, then we must be willing to accept that our governments and leaders will not always be acting in a manner society may deem appropriate. No one said Politics was a clean game.