Security agencies - increase powers, tech and oversight

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called for the security agencies to be given the powers and technology needed to match the foes they face - while subject to parliamentary oversight.

Security agencies - increase powers, tech and oversight
Security agencies - increase powers, tech and oversight

The UK intelligence agencies should be given the technological resources and the legislative permissions needed to protect the country's citizens from the threats posed by foreign adversaries, as well as both lone and organised terrorists, but within a structure of clear parliamentary oversight, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said today in his speech to  the Royal United Services Institute. 

This would happen early in the next parliament (should the Conservatives win the election), and it was clear that the intention was that the debate on the balance between security and privacy should then be closed down on the basis that security is a need while privacy is desirable, and further debate would undermine the agencies activities.

Hammond began by emphasising how the formerly secret intelligence agencies SIS and GCHQ are now publicly acknowledged and accountable to Parliament, subject to detailed Ministerial oversight.  He added that independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the agencies has been strengthened including making the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee of Parliament; giving it the scope to take evidence from any Department; and giving it the power to require information from the Agencies.

The agencies were credited with having helped disrupt more than 40 terrorist plots in the UK since July 2005 as well as playing a role in overseas conflicts, often with the 5 Eyes partners (in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) as well as other NATO allies, in addition to their more traditional role of monitoring the threat from potential “state adversaries”.  And the internet was highlighted as a new challenge, enabling self-radicalising of ‘ lone wolves'.  Thus from the UK to ISIS in Syria and Iraq or Russians in Ukraine, there is a continuing to gather intelligence on our adversaries capabilities and intentions.

Concerns include the accelerating pace of technological change, enabling both greater productivity, but also opening us up to greater vulnerability – hence the call for the UK's agencies to be able to ‘master every technological advance.'

Hammond said: “There are three key things we need to do.

“First, we need to go on backing the agencies with the resources they need to fulfil their vital mission. ...Secondly, to counter effectively the growing range of threats and the global nature of 21st Century terrorism and extremism, we must continue to strengthen our security cooperation with like-minded allies and partners. Within the strict constraints we set for ourselves, the pooling and sharing of intelligence with sister agencies helps ensure we get the broadest and deepest intelligence coverage possible. (including sharing information in the interests of our national security  with countries that may not adhere to the same high standards as the UK in how they treat suspects).

“The third action we must take is to respond decisively and positively to the public and parliamentary debate about the powers required by our intelligence agencies to do their job in a changed technological environment – and in doing so draw a line under that debate so that the agencies can get on with the job of keeping this country safe.”

Hammond specifically referred to GCHQ and its need to monitor private communications in order to do its job, while noting the balancing act to be achieved between the “privacy we desire and the security we need,” thus clearly emphasising the security aspect.

Clarifying his stance, Hammond said: “I am quite clear that the ability to intercept “bulk communications data”, to subject that metadata to electronic analysis and to seek to extract the tiny, tiny percentage of communications data that may be of any direct security interest does not represent an enhancement of the agencies' powers; rather, it represents the adaptation of those powers to the realities of the 21st Century.”

However there was also an acknowledgement of the need to address public concerns about the transparency of the regulatory framework and the powers contained within it – to be addressed in a forthcoming report on Security and Privacy from the Intelligence and Security Committee .

“The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I are determined that we should draw a line under the debate by legislating early in the next Parliament to give our agencies, clearly and transparently, the powers they need, and to ensure that our oversight regime keeps pace with technological change and addresses the reasonable concerns of our citizens,” said Hammond.

It was also noted how huge and asymmetric challenges are faced by opponents who operate without the constraints of democratic oversight, rule of law or respect for human rights with Hammond concluding: “In Government, we will do what it takes to allow them (the intelligence agencies) to keep us safe in the future.”

GCHQ subsequently issued a news item on its website “In support of the Foreign Secretary's speech today” called 'How does an analyst catch a terrorist?'

In this report – which appears targeted at the general public at an introductory level - the agency provides a step by step look at how a GCHQ analyst might track down a terrorist, from the early stages of discovering a lead through to naming a suspect.  Each step notes the relevant compliance undertaken to meet the overarching legal regime under which it operates.  So for example, with grounds for suspicion established, metadata on a suspect mobile is checked to identify that it has been at a particular location, on a particular day, around a specific time, been in contact with a defined group – with the data subject to data mining to extract intelligence. In this case, the oversight comment is simply that: “Analyst access to metadata and content is subject to stringent controls and must always be clearly justified.”