Intelligence agencies are responding to the threats posed in the internet age. We should be relieved, argues Sir David Omand.
Faced with the growing threats posed in the internet age, UK law enforcement has reorganized. It is recruiting more cyber professionals, notably through the new National Crime Agency. Increasingly the police have looked to the intelligence community for support in tackling terrorism and serious crime, which Parliament made express provision for in the 1989 Security Service Act and the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.
We should therefore recognize the work of national intelligence agencies for their activity on the internet. Their main role remains national security, such as supporting our armed forces and our diplomacy, countering proliferation and uncovering State sponsored cyber attacks.
But the intelligence agencies have an important and legitimate role helping law enforcement. For example, help in dealing with the cyber and other criminals operating in the dark net – the largest part of the internet, not indexed through Google, and which requires special anonymisation software such as TOR to access. Snowden made this harder by publicizing special techniques allegedly used to identify visitors to dark web sites used, for example, for sharing jihadist beheading videos, or exchanging videos of live child abuse.
Some nations want to nationalize their internet clouds and force internet companies to localize data about their citizens in servers on their own territory. But such measures will neither improve security in practice, nor advance their own economic and social interests in an open internet. We can see, too, that such naïve thinking assists those authoritarian nations wishing to fragment the internet to facilitate censorship and social control.
Snowden lifted a big lid on many aspects of US and UK digital intelligence, but the journalists who exploited the material he stole have not necessarily understood the context of much of that work, or the damage that publicizing intelligence methods does.
Online intelligence activity had been hidden from everyday sight, unavowed and largely unregulated. Remarkably, the UK in advance of most European partners, decided over 20 years ago to legislate for its intelligence agencies and to impose the same basic regime for intrusive investigative activity as for law enforcement. Many other countries, including Russia and China, do not have the legal safeguards, ethical constraints and oversights we have.
In the UK, Independent Commissioners check on legal compliance, and ISC Parliamentary oversight – recently beefed up – examines operational results and policies alike. The Interception Commissioner, Sir Anthony May, has reported that everything GCHQ does is properly authorized. It is also all legally properly justified including under Article 8 of the European Human Rights convention regarding personal privacy.
The UK is a model of responsibility for other nations to copy. That is not the impression you get from media reporting of Snowden, but Snowden was a systems administrator, had never been an intelligence analyst and had no knowledge of UK intelligence and law enforcement practice and regulation.
I would argue that the material Snowden stole reveals the way that the British intelligence community – and its close partners overseas – are successfully adapting to three profound changes taking place.
The first challenge is to provide national security in a world in which we have to manage simultaneous risks, many of which impact directly upon the individual citizen. The test is that normal life goes on: success is investment in the future in the confident expectation that economic and social life will continue, without sacrificing our essential liberties and demonstrating we remain a nation at peace.
Meeting that test has changed the nature of the demands for secret intelligence, for example in uncovering the rapidly growing threats to cyber security and thus to our economic prosperity and providing pre-emptive intelligence to arrest or disrupt terrorist plots and support military operations, often in near-real time.
Often that demand is for actionable intelligence about people – non-State actors – concerning their identities, associations, location, movements, financing and intentions.
The second challenge concerns the supply side. The digital age girdles the globe with packet-switched high-speed networks that comprise the internet, where cheap data storage makes even the most intimate aspects of our life to be potentially stored digitally for ever. This is profoundly altering the ways in which intelligence about people can be supplied.
Far more significant than any secret Snowden revealed is the business model that makes the internet economically viable. Private enterprise harvests and monetises information about our everyday activities. Information can be linked back to mobile platforms such as phones, tablets, laptops, ‘wearables’ and other devices. An essential part of the benefit to the user of an app comes often from geo-location that provides an instant map or location of the nearest outlet for whatever service is sought.
These features have powered the development of the web and social media, been an engine of growth and economic development and democratized access to knowledge. This information supply naturally attracts the attention of the law enforcement and intelligence authorities faced with increasing demands for information about their targets. At the same time, Governments, banks and companies of all sorts have been digitizing back offices and putting customer services and record keeping online.
Digital sources can thus – when duly authorized – supply intelligence about people as never before, from data in motion travelling around the global packet switched communications networks, and data at rest in many hundreds of millions of databases ranging from airline reservations to the address books on our iPhone.
We can debate whether it is the demand for intelligence on people that has encouraged intelligence agencies to become ever more ingenious in accessing digital data or whether it is the potential for supply of everyday information that creates its own demand. It is probably both and we must expect these supply and demand factors to continue to interact as the technology keeps changing.