Mass Surveillance 2013 Commentaries

Mass Surveillance 2013 Commentaries

The ‘Snowden Revelations’ have prompted sporadic commentary from politicians, many media outlets and digital rights organisations and in October, they were given special attention in the inaugural speech of new MI5 Director General, Andrew Parker. Although he did not mention Snowden or the Guardian publications by name, a section of his speech was dedicated to defending mass surveillance.

His speech has since prompted the responses of David Cameron MP, Nick Clegg MP and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

Below you can find the summary of Mr Parker’s speech and the subsequent responses.

Speech to Royal United Services Institute on October 8, 2013

The principle themes in the speech were:

  • Intelligence operations should be kept secret from the public sphere. Leaks allow terrorist evade their surveillance’s scope.
  • Intelligence services have a strong track record of protecting the public from threats and it is essential they maintain their ability to keep track of all communications.
  • The nature of the enemy is changing. Their numbers have increased, communication methods have become more sophisticated and their operations are carried out by more independent groups.

In his speech, the new MI5 director, made clear that there is a distinction between the intelligence agency’s capabilities to identify a potential threat and having the ability to monitor said threat's every activity (and thus access crucial information).

The main message on the surveillance front seemed to be that only those under reasonable suspicion would have their information scrutinised. However, there was a repeated indication that it's important for a truly wide range of information to be collected ("e-mail, IP telephony, in-game communication, social networking, chat rooms, anonymising services, and a myriad of mobile apps"[1]).

Direct Quotes:

“Assumption that knowing who somebody is means MI5 then somehow knows everything about that person and can continually monitor every aspect of their life. We cannot.”

“The idea that we either can or would want to operate intensive scrutiny of thousands is fanciful.”

“Being on our radar does not necessarily mean being under our microscope. The reality of intelligence work in practice is that we only focus the most intense intrusive attention on a small number of cases at any one time.”

"The internet is used by terrorists for many purposes: broadcasting their propaganda, radicalising vulnerable individuals, arranging travel, buying items, moving money and so on. But the primary issue is communication.”

“the terrorist has tens of thousands of means of communication. Many of those routes are now encrypted. Further advances are made every day.”

“And let me be clear - we only apply intrusive tools and capabilities against terrorists and others threatening national security.”

Comments from Prime Minister

A government spokesperon commented on behalf of the prime minister saying that the speech was excellent. When asked if this meant the revival of the Communications Data bill, they said "the position hasn't changed and that the government continues to consider how best we continue to ensure our intelligence agencies” [2])

A few days later, David Cameron MP commented on the activities of the Guardian by saying that when newspapers get hold of a vast amount of information that has been "effectively stolen", they have to "think about their responsibilities and are they helping to keep our country safe"[3].

Comments by Deputy Prime Minister

Nick Clegg MP, agreed that the Guardian leaks were harmful, but he also said that there was a legitimate debate about the use of mass surveillance programmes;

"What that means for privacy and proportionality, that is a totally legitimate area of debate. How you hold the secret parts of any state to account is an incredibly im-portant issue."[4]

He also added that there should be a measure of secrecy in the security services, however noted that "you can only really make secrecy legitimate in the eyes of the public if there is proper form of accountability" [5]

Comments by Guardian editor

In an interview to Radio 4, Alan Rusbridger, said that he believed the speech was reasonable, but the intelligence services cannot be the only voices in the debate [6]. On whether he believed terrorists would change their communication methods due to the revelations made by the publications, he said the nothing would change, as terrorists would already suspect their communication being monitored. He said the only difference would be that the public was now aware of mass surveillance.

For him, the main question was the difference between harvesting information and targeting specific suspects. The real issue is who gets the oversight of choosing.

He also confirmed the Guardian will continue publishing the files obtained by Edward Snowden, being very selective and careful with the information they select.

Reactions in the United States

Deputy Defence Department inspector general

Anthony C Thomas, the deputy Defence Department inspector general (DOD IG) who is the Pentagon's intelligence watchdog, admitted that he had no knowledge of the bulk collection of American phone records, when it was revealed by the Guardian in June 2013.[7].

Mr Thomas has oversight responsibilities at the NSA. He said that he was not personally aware of the bulk data collection. He said that his oversight work depended on the reviews conducted by other defense-related inspector generals (IG). He said that if the NSA IG had an ongoing investigation, the DOD IG will hold off any actions until it is complete or anything comes up.

"If the NSA IG is looking into something and we feel that their reporting, their investigation is ongoing, we’ll wait to see what they find or what they don’t find, and that may dictate something that we may do"[8].