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MI5 Head calls for more “œup-to-date” surveillance powers

Posted by malcolm on Thursday, September 17th, 2015 at 18:06

Andrew Parker, the Head of MI5, has called for more "up-to-date" surveillance laws in an interview with the BBC, where he also stated that communications companies have an "ethical responsibility" to alert the authorities to "potential threats". In a BBC Radio 4 interview, Parker said:

MI5 and others need to be able to navigate the internet to find terrorist communication, we need to be able to use data sets to be able to join the dots to be able to find and stop the terrorists who mean us harm before they are able to bring plots to fruition. We have been pretty successful at that in recent years but it is becoming more difficult to do it as technology changes faster and faster [and] encryption comes in.

The government is currently planning renewed attempts to pass the Communications Data Bill, also known as the "Snoopers' Charter", reportedly with new safeguards to protect privacy and civil liberties. They are expected to bring forward a new version of the Bill in October. Parker also told the BBC that communications companies and social media websites have an "ethical responsibility" to help the security services.

I think there is a real question about companies who hold that information under what arrangements they should come forward and report it.

Supporters of greater surveillance powers argue that intelligence gathering capabilities are declining precipitously in the digital age. In this vein, Parker argues that the police and intelligence agencies "can no longer obtain under proper legal warrant the communication of people they believe to be terrorists". However, this is a narrative that is met with some scepticism by many security experts. In their 2011 paper, Encryption and Globalization, Professor Peter Swire of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Kenesa Ahmad of the Future of Privacy Forum argue that in reality we are closer to a "golden age of surveillance".

A simple hypothetical can assist the reader in deciding between the "going dark" and "golden age of surveillance" perspectives. Suppose agencies can choose between a 1990-era surveillance package and a 2011-era surveillance package. The first package includes wiretap authority as it existed pre-encryption, but lacks the new techniques for location tracking, confederate identification, access to new databases, and data mining. The second package would match current capabilities: some encryption-related obstacles, but increased levels of wiretaps, as well as new surveillance capabilities. The second package is clearly superior—the new surveillance tools assist a vast range of investigations, whereas wiretaps apply only to a small subset of key investigations. These new tools are used far more frequently than wiretaps and provide granular data to assist investigators.

Or as Bruce Schneier put it more recently:

For most of human history, surveillance has been expensive. Over the last couple of decades, it has become incredibly cheap and almost ubiquitous. That a few bits and pieces are becoming expensive again isn't a cause for alarm.

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