Former foreign secretary William Hague has described the need for government interception of private data and communication as a way to protect the UK public from harm.
“In a world where private information can quite often protect the taxpayer, or stop a multitude of crimes or save lives, in my view there can ultimately be no absolute right to privacy,” Hague said in a speech at Infosecurity Europe in London.
“If we were not able to gather intelligence effectively about organised crime or terrorist activity, restrictions on the liberties of our citizens in many other ways would have to be much more serious and draconian.
"We are able to leave most people undisturbed by law enforcement activity because it can be focused on the people who are most likely to be a problem for the country.”
Hague’s rather polarising view stems from his time as foreign secretary. He explained that the position gave him an insight into the work of the UK’s intelligence services in cyber espionage, defence and attack.
“I also saw on a daily basis the need for intelligence to frustrate organised crime, terrorism and foreign espionage,” he said, noting that intercepting private communications allows security agencies to tackle arms dealers, criminal gangs, terrorists and tax evaders.
As such, Hague is in support of the Investigatory Powers Bill currently working its way through Parliament.
Many find the idea of the government snooping on their private details unnerving, but Hague claimed that it is a critical element of national security. He added that the sensitive nature of intelligence activities prevented his revealing when snooping has been effective.
“Intelligence is bound to involve some invasion of privacy, and the state must be able in some exceptional circumstances to look at the private communication of the people who might be involved in [criminal activity],” he said.
However, despite the government’s ability to intercept private communications, Hague claimed that a system of checks is in place to ensure that such activity is carried out only when necessary.
Only senior ministers are able to sign warrants for the interception of an individual’s private data, and decisions to do so are not taken lightly, he said.
Private and public sector collaboration
Hague admitted that there is a need to strike a balance between intercepting personal data and ensuring that the public still has some form of privacy. “There is a need for privacy and security," he said.
One way is to ensure that the government and private companies work together to find such a balance, according to Hague.
He cited the case of Apple challenging the FBI’s request to decrypt an iPhone owned by a terrorist, saying that the decision on privacy versus security will ultimately be decided by public and parliamentary debate.
“This is not a decision for one corporation or one law enforcement agency, nor should it be decided by a court based on laws not necessarily designed for this purpose or in the light of this technology," he explained.
"This is a matter for Parliament and for the public to decide with the assistance of informed debate over the next few years."
Hague believes that the public’s reticence to accept government snooping will change as concerns over national security become more pertinent.
“Having seen what I have of threats to security, and how unacceptable it is in modern society for the security of the mass of the population to be jeopardised, I can’t see that an absolute right to privacy will withstand the pressure of arguments and of events over the coming years,” he said.
Cyber security agenda
Government snooping many have taken centre stage in Hague's speech, but he referred to other areas of cyber security that will have an effect on the UK’s national security in the near future.
Hague said that the increased threat of advanced cyber attacks by other nations and state-sponsored actors highlights a growing need to bolster cyber defensive and offensive capabilities, aided by greater collaboration with other Western nations and private security companies.
“Partnerships between companies and governments are absolutely critical to this,” he added.
The need to defend against cyber attacks is also of critical economic importance, particularly given the rapid growth of digital services and technology.
“Digital use of information has generally grown much faster than our ability to protect it. We have been enjoying all the fun, all the innovation, but security can be neglected,” he said.
“We have to adapt to defending such technology. Those countries that can’t protect their citizens, their armed forces, their companies against intrusion or manipulation will be overtaken by other countries. This will become a critical national advantage or disadvantage.”
The government is already going some way to keeping the UK ahead in the cyber security world, having recently announced a £250,000 fund to help UK cyber security startups.
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