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.