GCHQ head says agency was 'never involved in mass surveillance'

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Sir Iain Lobban says GCHQ staff "are normal decent human beings who watch EastEnders and Spooks".

Retiring GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban has fired a parting shot at critics of the agency in relation to its surveillance activities by saying “the people who work at GCHQ would sooner walk out the door than be involved in anything remotely resembling mass surveillance”.

Lobban made his claim in a valedictory speech at the Churchill War Rooms in London on Tuesday where he defended his service and staff, declaring “I believe passionately that cyber security work in the United Kingdom is a noble profession. My staff are the embodiment of British values, not a threat to them.”

Responding to the stream of revelations by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden that GCHQ trawls the web to capture masses of email, phone call and other data, the GCHQ head admitted that “we access the internet at scale - so as to dissect it with surgical precision”.

He said: “Practically it is now impossible to operate successfully in any other way. You can't pick and choose the components of a global interception system that you like – catching terrorists and paedophiles – and those you don't – incidental collection of data at scale: it's one integrated system.”

He also defended his staff, saying: “GCHQ staff are normal decent human beings – people who spend their lives outside work shopping at Sainsbury's or the Co-op, watching EastEnders and Spooks. We don't suddenly lose our souls the moment we swipe into the doughnut [GCHQ's headquarters].

“They miss sleep and family commitments, feeling despair if they are unsuccessful and people are harmed. And the psychological sacrifices can be severe. British ‘spies' have to deal with the worst of human behaviour. They have to look at some highly disturbing images of grotesque things being done to children, at graphic videos of beheadings.”

He also pointed out GCHQ has helped develop the cyber security profession. “By understanding trends in both the technology itself and how it's used, we can help to build the kind of skilled workforce that our country will need.”

Asserting that “secret does not have to equal sinister”, Lobban argued that GCHQ is battling “the biggest migration in human history” with 1.5 billion people moving to the internet in the six years since he became GCHQ director, among them “the plotters, the proliferators and the paedophiles”.

He asked: “Do we really believe that the world would be a better place if the internet becomes an ungoverned space where anybody can act freely with impunity?

“The vast majority of those criminal threats to the UK are posed by groups or individuals based overseas. So we need strong intelligence and cyber capabilities to identify them and, where international law enforcement doesn't work, to disrupt them directly.

“But how to find them in the first place? Unfortunately, there's no ‘badguy.com.' Instead we have to search for them in the vast morass of the internet.”

Lobban admitted: “By definition, the acquisition, aggregation, usage, sharing and retention of information involve varying degrees of interference with, or intrusion into, the privacy rights of individuals.”

But he said that intrusion is always “necessary and proportionate” to ensure “national security, economic well-being or the prevention and detection of serious crime”.

He claimed: “Of all the communications out there globally – the emails, the texts, the images – only a small percentage are within reach of our sensors. Of that, we only intercept a small percentage. Of that, we only store a miniscule percentage for a limited period of time. Of that, only a small percentage is ever viewed or listened to, as permitted by our legal framework and self-evidently constrained by resource.”

But his words have met strong criticism from data privacy campaigners like Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, who accused Lobban of refusing to acknowledge GCHQ's true role and saying the UK's legal safeguards are too weak.

Carr told SCMagazineUK.com via email: “There has already been an acknowledgement in the UK and the US that mass data collection does take place. Having the debate around the rights and wrongs of that makes our country stronger, not refusing to acknowledge the truth.

“The public debate in the UK has been insufficient and the law has failed to keep pace with technological change.”

Lobban said GCHQ operates under a “triple lock” of controls comprising a secretary of state, independent commissioners and parliamentary committee, supplemented by an Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

“And we wouldn't have it any other way,” he declared. “I want to make it absolutely clear that the core of my organisation's mission is the protection of liberty, not the erosion of it. We respect privacy. We actively seek to minimise intrusion into everyday lives.”

He added: “It's not for me to act as a cheerleader for the system of oversight and scrutiny that apply to GCHQ and my sister intelligence and security agencies. But I will say that it is the most coherent and well-developed system of which I am aware in relation to such agencies around the world.”

Carr at Big Brother Watch countered: “The UK is lagging behind the US in terms of surveillance oversight and accountability, with no involvement of courts or meaningful transparency. That gap is set to widen further still and that should be a call to action for Parliament.

“In the US there has been an acknowledgment from the President, law enforcement and the intelligence community that there is a need for judicial oversight by courts, greater transparency by the Government and companies and for the legal basis of surveillance programmes to be public. All of these issues should be pursued in Britain to protect our privacy and our economy.”

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