GCHQ wants to become more transparent, claims web pioneer

News by Doug Drinkwater

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, widely-recognised as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has claimed that the UK's electronic surveillance and oversight body GCHQ is trying to become more transparent on spying.

Berners-Lee was speaking at a press Q&A session after his keynote presentation at IP Expo Europe, and it was during this discussion that he criticised government surveillance as counter-intuitive to the idea of an open web.

“I think we should be really resistant to it,” he said on surveillance and the emergence of new legislation to help government spying, such as the DRIP (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) bill which passed through both the House of Commons and House of Lords earlier this year.

He admitted that such surveillance is “inevitable” although he noted how GCHQ's new head, Robert Hannigan (who replaced the outgoing Sir Ian Lobban as director of the agency in the autumn), has already expressed interest in how the agency can become more transparent and accountable for the data it collects.

“I talked to the new head of GCHQ who dropped in and asked how should GCHQ be more powerful and still be accountable. It's tricky, it's a difficult problem,” he said.

“He asked, ‘how should we build a system?' and ‘how should GCHQ do what the British public needs it to be able to do; to be a powerful force and still be accountable?

He added that Britain, in particular, had a problem with ‘trusting' the government based on traditional values and said that more powerful checks were needed to ensure that this trust was not misplaced.

Both GCHQ and NSA have faced calls to become more transparent ever since the first of Edward Snowden's leaks, and while the NSA has forged ahead with President Barack Obama's reforms – which include a relaxation on spying on ‘friendly' states and a reduced collection of metadata – GCHQ has been criticised by pressure groups for failing to follow suit.

“In a way, it's tradition with Britain trusting the government. To a certain extent that can work on hoping that nothing bad will happen, but the fact is we have to put in structures with more powerful checks.”

Government surveillance was a continuous theme at the London show with renowned cryptographer Bruce Schneier – now CTO of incident response firm Co3 Systems – taking up the baton in his later keynote.

In a talk which largely looked at how companies should react to security incidents, Schneier said there was a ‘lot more nation-state sponsored [cyber] espionage against companies', something that was forcing governments to ‘get involved' with the private sector companies charged with protecting critical infrastructure.

He added that governments were ‘getting involved with [cyber] attack and defence' and claimed that cyber weapons are being developed in established European countries like the UK and Italy before being sold onto ‘good and bad countries'.

“We're seeing a lot more government attention in our industry,” said Schneier.


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