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Bulk powers 'play important part in averting terror threats'

Published 19/08/2016

Bulk powers are among the most controversial tactics set to be covered by the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is going through Parliament
Bulk powers are among the most controversial tactics set to be covered by the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is going through Parliament

Powers used by Britain's spy agencies to collect vast troves of data are vital in stopping terror attacks and fighting serious crime, a major review has concluded.

So-called bulk capabilities deployed by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have a "clear operational purpose", terror laws watchdog David Anderson QC found.

The tactics have played a role in identifying potential terrorists, thwarting attacks and rescuing hostages, according to the report.

Its findings are a boost to the Government after proposed new spying laws sparked privacy concerns.

Mr Anderson's review, published on Friday, said bulk powers "play an important part in identifying, understanding and averting threats in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and further afield".

The techniques are used in cyber-defence, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism, as well as in tackling child sexual abuse and organised crime.

Bulk powers cover a range of tools used to gather large volumes of information and are among the most controversial tactics covered by the landmark Investigatory Powers Bill, which is going through Parliament.

The review looked at four bulk powers, which can only be used by the three intelligence agencies:

:: Bulk interception - u sed to intercept the communications of individuals outside the UK. The review said this power was of "vital utility" and had played an important part in preventing bomb attacks, rescuing hostages and thwarting numerous cyber-attacks.

:: Bulk acquisition - u sed to access communications data - the who, when and where of an email or text message but not the content - in bulk. Only disclosed publicly in November last year, for MI5 it has "contributed significantly" to the disruption of terrorist operations, Mr Anderson's report said.

:: Bulk personal datasets - t hese comprise personal information relating to a number of people, the majority of whom are unlikely to be of intelligence interest.

The report said: "We were shown their utility in identifying ... potential terrorists, including individuals who posed a threat to the London Olympics and to the UK in the wake of recent attacks in France and Belgium."

:: Bulk equipment interference - this includes hacking into suspects' smartphones and computers, which is seen as an increasingly important tool given the rise of encryption. The report said the power has never been used, but a "thematic" capability has been used to identify dangerous extremists in Syria.

Mr Anderson's review found a "proven operational case" for the first three powers. On bulk equipment interference it said there is a "distinct, though not yet proven" operational case.

Where alternatives to bulk powers exist, they are often less effective, more dangerous, more intrusive or slower, the report added.

Mr Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, described the pace of technological change as "breathtaking".

The inquiry recommended that a panel of independent academics and industry experts are appointed to advise on the impact of changing technology, and how the intelligence agencies could reduce the "privacy footprint" of their activities.

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham called on Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd to accept the report "in its entirety".

Campaign group Liberty hit out at the review.

Policy director Bella Sankey said: "Liberty called for an impartial, independent and expert inquiry into these intrusive powers - yet sadly this rushed review failed on all three counts."

No 10 said the Government is giving "careful consideration" to the report.

Mrs May said it demonstrates how bulk powers in the new 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 IP Bill."

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