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UK spies 'use powers carefully'

Published 02/06/2015

Ciaran Martin said GCHQ uses its legal powers
Ciaran Martin said GCHQ uses its legal powers "extremely carefully"

British spies do not carry out "random mass intrusion" into law-abiding citizens' lives, a senior intelligence official has insisted, as he warned the country faces threats in cyber space every day.

Ciaran Martin, of listening post GCHQ, said it uses its legal powers "extremely carefully".

The director general for cyber security at the agency said the UK faces "chronic, advanced and persistent" threats online and warned that it was impossible to construct a "cyber security umbrella" over the country.

He also told how GCHQ has been "genuinely surprised" by the range of organisations targeted.

Last week the Government announced plans to introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill.

It is expected to incorporate and expand on aspects of the controversial Communications Data Bill, which was blocked under the coalition by the Liberal Democrats.

The legislation will aim to furnish authorities with powers they have repeatedly said they need to combat terrorism and serious crime.

GCHQ's practices have come under close scrutiny in recent years following revelations about surveillance by Edward Snowden.

In a speech at the Infosecurity Europe conference in London, Mr Martin said: "Our role only really works because we have a world class intelligence capability to draw on.

"If we want to protect the UK from the darkest aspects of cyber space, we have to be able to understand how it works.

"That intelligence role has been the source of well-known controversy around privacy."

He went on: "I can't and won't talk about that in any detail today, the Queen's speech set out the process for considering legislation on proper powers for national security and law enforcement bodies in this area and it's for ministers to propose what those should be and for parliament to debate.

"All I would say is that everyone in GCHQ, everyone working there, is acutely conscious that we are entrusted with very significant powers under the law and we use those powers extremely carefully."

He referred to a report compiled last year by Interceptions Commissioner Sir Anthony May to emphasise the agency's position on mass surveillance.

"He asked the question does GCHQ engage in the random mass intrusion into the private lives of law abiding citizens. The answer, and I quote, is emphatically no.

"One of the things that has been said almost flippantly in our defence is even if we wanted to do some of the things we've been accused of, we don't actually have enough people to engage in such unlawful mass intrusion.

"Size naturally affects our role in UK cyber security. We are simply not big enough to put a big cyber security umbrella over the whole of the UK."

He described the threats facing the UK in cyber space as "chronic, advanced and persistent".

Mr Martin added: "To those who sometimes, ever so politely, suggest we might be doing the classic bureaucratic trick of talking up a threat to keep ourselves relevant ... let me say this:

"Everything I am about to say is drawn on and based on observed fact.

"In the last decade, when the previous government started talking about cyber security, we were talking for the most part about what might happen.

"Now we are talking about what is happening and what we see happening on a daily basis."

He reiterated a warning issued by GCHQ head Robert Hannigan.

"At GCHQ we continue to see real threats to the UK on a daily basis and the scale and rate of these attacks show little sign of abating," he said.

He said the "transformative technological revolution" currently under way is a "hugely significant economic and social opportunity".

Mr Martin added: "Everything we do at GCHQ in pursuit of better cyber security is about realistic cyber security that can survive contact with the everyday reality of people's lives.

"It is absolutely not our aim to shut down the march of technology."

He identified the three main motivations for cyber attacks as "money, power and propaganda".

Mr Martin said criminals, terrorists and activists have different motives and therefore different modus operandi.

He said: "Some attack vectors are very scatter gun - firing out malware, phishing emails. Seeing where they can get in and taking it from there.

"We see this a lot. For obvious reasons we can't and don't publish the list of organisations we've had cause to look into and work with over the years.

"But if once we are gone, Infosec 2115 might have a historical talk on our files, our successors might be asking 'who on earth was attacking that organisation and why on earth are they doing it?'

"We have been genuinely surprised by the extent and variety of UK organisations subject to intrusions."

Other attacks are "much more targeted and capable", he added.

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