The UK’s national security boss, Robert Hannigan, should come clean on surveillance and stop attacking technology companies, privacy experts have said.
Intelligence agencies must use the debate sparked by Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations to overhaul their attitude to privacy and oversight, said the group speaking at Dublin’s Web Summit in November.
“What’s urgently required is a real cultural shift amongst our politicians and among our civil servants in Whitehall as to the value of privacy: the fact that it’s a public and social good, and it’s a collective good as well,” said Bella Sankey, policy director at civil liberties organisation Liberty.
Sankey, speaking alongside the former MI5 intelligence officer and whistleblower Annie Machon, criticised Hannigan for his attack on technology companies, in which he claimed were “in denial” about the misuse of the internet by terrorists, and that “privacy has never been an absolute right”.
“Given everything we’ve learnt in the past 18 months, he chose not to address at all the very serious things that GCHQ stand accused of: blanket surveillance of the UK population with public knowledge and without parliamentary knowledge, [and] receiving warrantless bulk intercepts from the NSA on US and people around the world,” said Machon.
“Instead he chose to attack tech companies, to kind of instigate a PR smearing campaign in a threatening and non-constructive way. It’s astounding when GCHQ is in the dock that it has yet to respond on the substance of anything that we’ve learned.”
Sankey called for “a new settlement and a new consensus” with full engagement from agencies and politicians. “This whole notion that individual privacy is in tension with the security of everyone is really shot to pieces by what we’ve learned about what’s been going on,” she said.
“Liberty has a case in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which is this very secretive quasi-court which is the means by which you challenge surveillance measures in the UK. And we’re hoping by that case that we’re going to be able to force a change in the law and for some of this debate to come out in the open,” she said.
“But it’s a very long and slow process, and so far the agencies have been resisting and obfuscating every step of the way.”
Effective oversight - to include citizens
Jamie Bartlett, director of the centre for the analysis of social media at thinktankDemos, said most citizens cared more about stopping terrorists than about privacy.
“What I think the Snowden revelations have done is certainly created the impression among the public that the spies are scooping up everything: everything we do, all the data, every swipe every click, every bit of browsing history. So they’re omnipotent, they’re omnipresent,” he said.
Bartlett said Snowden has prompted a “robust response” from technology companies, and an increase in the availability of easy-to-use encryption services for the public. But terrorists and criminals would also be benefitting from encrypted services, making it harder for agencies to prevent attacks, especially perpetrated by unpredictable individuals with “ a low barrier to entry”.
It could mean, he said, the crisis of confidence in the intelligence agencies will be about them failing to stop terrorism, rather than in overstepping the mark on privacy.