GCHQ sets out 'operational case' for bulk collection

GCHQ has released a new document advancing the 'operational case' for bulk collection, arguing that fighting terrorism is only part of the picture.

Granting intelligence services bulk powers is not always met with approval
Granting intelligence services bulk powers is not always met with approval

A GCHQ document has put forward the ‘operational case' for bulk collection.

Authored by the UK's signals intelligence agency, which is also the principal agent of bulk collection in the UK, the report sets out the manner in which “bulk powers provide vital intelligence that cannot be generated from any other source”.

It goes on to draw out scenarios, some real, some hypothetical, in which bulk powers were or could be useful.

Chief among these is combatting terrorism, the main thrust of pieces of legislation like the incoming Investigatory Powers Bill which the document largely addresses. The analysis of bulk data has “played a significant part in every major counter terrorism investigation of the last decade, including in each of the seven UK attack plots disrupted since November 2014”.

Combatting so-called Islamic State and its proxies obviously ranks high, but the lingering threat of Northern Irish terrorism is also mentioned as are the UK military campaigns in southern Afghanistan.

Technological innovations also advance the so-called ‘operational case' for bulk collection. The document states, “Terrorists, serious criminals and hostile states have embraced technological advancements, including the widespread use of encryption, and the growth of the internet to hide from sight and to plan their attacks.”

By 2019, the document mentions, 71 percent of the world's population will have access to a mobile internet device. As more migrate to the web, so will more figure out how to exploit its darker corners.

Terrorist recruitment on social media, it is argued, could be effectively countered with such powers. Furthermore, the use of bulk data “is among the few effective methods available to counter the illicit use of the dark web”.

Those hiding on the dark web extend from terrorists to drug dealers to paedophiles, of which 50 have been ‘disrupted' thanks to bulk collection powers, the report says.  

Fighting cyber-crime is also claimed to hinge upon the use of bulk powers. Ninety-five percent of the cyber-attacks detected by government agencies in the past six months were discovered this way.

From there, the arguments move into an area that fewer agree on: encryption. While, the document admits that “the spread of encryption has been positive for businesses and citizens”, it points out that terrorists also use it to hide their communications.

Such powers, if legitimised, could be employed to new and creative ends, GCHQ says. For example, in an unfolding terrorist attack involving many British tourists, UK forces could intercept data from the town and better deal with and perhaps disrupt the situation.

A similar example is also used in the hypothetical case of a rogue state attaining biological weapons, wherein the national intelligence services could identify key personnel on the project.

Much of the debate surrounding bulk interception has juxtaposed it against targeted interception, a strategy which opponents of bulk collection argue would constitute a refined approach to terrorism and crime. Not so, argue the authors of the operation case. Rather, “it is rarely a question of choosing between targeted or bulk powers” – intelligence agencies need both to work effectively.

The document goes on to remind readers that “all of these powers are already available to the security and intelligence agencies under existing legislation”.

Many of its provisions have been already articulated in previous pieces of legislation including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, albeit tenuously. However, those pieces of legislation are still contested by many privacy campaigners and politicians. Some of the IP Bill's powers are not legal, according to some, such as bulk internet interception and the retention of that data for up to a year.

But if so many of the powers laid out in the IP Bill are already legitimised elsewhere, then why even attempt to pass such a bill?

The government's position appears to be, whatever the legality of certain surveillance practices, they've still been widely practiced by intelligence services and thus Parliament should give its consent to formalising such practices.

Carrying on from that point, the document points to numerous examples of cases where bulk surveillance has worked. 

In a briefing from an unidentified GCHQ spokesperson, SC was told of a reportedly real scenario whereby a phone was obtained from a terrorist, previously unknown to security services.  Because all records had been kept, the records on this phone were able to be checked and connections with other previously unknown terrorists were made.  GCHQ's contention is that bulk collection is not bulk surveillance as only those people of interest for a specific reason have their records investigated, ie the surviellance part of the operation is targetted.

Considering that these are examples from past intelligence and law enforcement cases, details are often vague – too vague, according to some. Privacy International legal officer Camilla Graham Wood told SCMagazineUK.com: "This operational case must go further than setting out individual, unsupported case studies. Sufficient material should be made public to permit detailed analysis, and stand the scrutiny of parliamentarians, civil society, academia and any other body."

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