Bulk collection and analysis of data by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ is relevant and worthwhile for national security, according to an in-depth report by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC.
Prime minister Theresa May has already used the report as proof that the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, despite widespread criticism, is necessary to boost the UK’s ability to fight crime and terrorism.
The 192-page report was headed by Anderson and a team he chose free from government involvement. It did not look at the legal and privacy aspects of bulk data collection and analysis, only whether it served a purpose for the operations of the security agencies.
In this regard the report was clear that, while other methods of data collection and analysis exist, they are not as useful as bulk collection.
“The bulk powers play an important part in identifying, understanding and averting threats in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and further afield,” the report stated.
"Where alternative methods exist, they are often less effective, more dangerous, more resource-intensive, more intrusive or slower.”
The report cited examples of terrorist attacks being stopped and hostages rescued because bulk datasets could be analysed quickly to uncover useful information.
Bulk equipment interference
The report also examined whether bulk ‘equipment interference' (EI) would be a necessary component of GCHQ’s capabilities, as end-to-end encryption makes it harder for content to be accessed.
In essence, bulk EI would allow GCHQ to tap into devices directly, rather than just the communications being sent, so that the problems of encryption can be circumvented.
This already exists, but on a much smaller, targeted scale. The government hopes to widen this by introducing the power to the Investigatory Powers Bill.
"MI6 considered that it was likely to become 'increasingly dependent' on GCHQ’s use of bulk EI to identify threats to the UK, to develop its understanding of those threats and to disrupt them, particularly in the context of counter-terrorism and cyber," the report noted.
The report justified this capability given the difficulties posed by encryption, but warned that oversight of the power is vital in ensuring that it is not abused.
"An operational case for bulk EI has been made out in principle, and that there are likely to be real-world instances in which no effective alternative is available," the report said.
“[However,] bulk EI will require, to an even greater extent than the other powers subject to review, the most rigorous scrutiny not only by the secretary of state but by the judicial commissioners who must approve its use and by the IPC which will have oversight of its consequences."
The conclusion of the report noted that the government must regularly assess the security agencies' powers, given the speed at which technological developments take place.
“This report has declared the powers under review to have a clear operational purpose. But, like an old-fashioned snapshot, it will fade in time," it said.
"The world is changing with great speed, and new questions will arise about the exercise, utility and intrusiveness of these strong capabilities.”
May used the findings of the review to underline why the Investigatory Powers Bill, also dubbed the Snoopers’ Charter, is so vital to UK security.
“[The] report demonstrates how the bulk powers contained in the Investigatory Powers Bill are of crucial importance to our security and intelligence agencies,” she said.
"These powers often provide the only means by which our agencies are able to protect the British public from the most serious threats that we face.
“It is vital that we retain them, while ensuring their use is subject to robust safeguards and world-leading oversight which are enshrined in the Investigatory Powers Bill.”
The Open Rights Group said the report only represented “one side of the story” and that a debate over how such bulk collection affects the population must be taken into account.
“Some of Anderson’s claims, such as that alternatives to bulk may exist but would be more cumbersome, should open the door to a deeper discussion about the ethics of bulk collection,” the organisation said.
“Parliament cannot pass the buck any longer and will have to decide whether it is right to collect and analyse the phone calls and internet use of whole populations, turning everyone into a potential suspect."
The Investigatory Powers Bill is currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. A hearing is scheduled for 5 September, meaning that the bill is likely to become law before the end of the year.
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