The United Kingdom’s state intelligence agencies have been given the green light to continue their mass spying operations around the world following an independent review into the UK’s extraordinarily invasive bulk surveillance laws. Compiled by David Anderson QC, a senior lawyer and Britain’s official “Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation“, the two hundred page report was commissioned by Theresa May, before she became the British prime minister. In effect the review agrees that the UK’s spooks can snoop where they want, when they want, with minimal restrictions or oversight. In the alarming words of Joanna Cherry, an MP with the Scottish National Party (SNP), Britain has now gone “...further than any other Western democracy” in the mass surveillance of its citizens and those of neighbouring countries. The Register, a leading tech-website, has a lengthy article on the newly published document, “Report of the Bulk Powers Review“, and the near free pass it gives to the activities of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Security Service (SS – MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS – MI6). It’s essential reading for those interested in such matters, as indeed is the full report itself.
Of Irish interest are the case studies involving MI5, an organisation which played a sinister role in the 1966-2005 conflict in the north-east of Ireland. It’s local branch continues to operate in Palace Barracks, a sprawling British Army base in County Down that also functioned as a torture-centre during the 1970s.
“6.13. All the case studies relating to the use of bulk acquisition were provided by MI5,
although in A8/1 GCHQ provided an example of the combined use of bulk
interception and communications data. The case studies concerned principally
Islamist extremist activity in the UK and abroad, and dissident republican activity
in Northern Ireland.
• Northern Ireland Related Terrorism: Dissident Republican (DR) groupings
continue to conduct attacks designed to kill members of the security forces
including police and prison officers. In 2015 there were 16 DR attacks, and in
2016 Prison Officer Adrian Ismay died as a result of such an attack. Bulk
capabilities are essential to understanding the plans of resilient, experienced
terrorists and stopping their attacks”
That last claim is highly debatable given the apparent amateurism shown in the examples below, all involving individuals allegedly participating in the would-be Republican Resistance in the UK-occupied Six Counties (and in some contrast to those who came before).
Case study A9/17
Bulk acquisition data was used in a recent operation to identify phones linked to a
dissident republican attack in Northern Ireland. The information obtained, combined with other sources, led to the arrest and charge of an individual on terrorist offences. The telephones were not previously known to MI5. The Review team was given information which indicated that it would have taken more time and been considerably more resource intensive to discover the telephones without bulk acquisition data.
Case study A9/23
Bulk acquisition data was used in 2014 to identify the mobile phone being used by a dissident Irish republican. The phone was then intercepted, and police were able to arrest the individual while he was committing a terrorism-related offence but before any harm had been caused. He was then prosecuted for a number of terrorism-related offences.
MI5 told the Review team that it would have been possible to identify the mobile phone without the use of bulk acquisition data. However, the alternative method would have involved significant collateral intrusion in the form of gathering information about many telephones, all but one of them of no intelligence interest. This method would also have taken longer, and so carried the risk that the correct phone might not have been identified in time to prevent an attack.
Case study A9/24
In 2014 bulk acquisition data were used by MI5 to identify telephones being used by dissident Irish republicans who were planning attacks. The phones were then
intercepted. The knowledge gained from this operation informed the joint MI5 and PSNI investigative strategy. An individual was subsequently arrested and charged with terrorist and other offences.
Case study A9/25
Summarised in the Operational Case
In this 2013 case, bulk acquisition data was used to foil an attack by Irish dissident
republicans. It was suspected that members of the group had already obtained
explosives and that their activities were increasing (a common sign of an attack being imminent). However, MI5 did not know the date of any proposed attack and the group’s security awareness made it difficult to obtain further information.
The use of bulk acquisition data identified telephones being used by the group, and
further enabled MI5 to identify previously unknown members of the group. MI5 was able to increase its coverage of this expanded group. As a result it became aware of a sudden further increase in activity from analysis of the group’s communications activity and MI5 judged that an attack was imminent. Police intervened and recovered an improvised explosive device. A prosecution followed.
The Review team was given details which indicated that, without bulk acquisition data, the telephones would not have been identified.
Of course many ordinary people in Ireland, who have no part in politics (or insurgency), will simply shrug their shoulders at the above news and move on to the next item of interest. However, to do so is to voluntarily submit to a system of mass surveillance by a hostile foreign power, an Orwellian situation that I pointed out as long ago as 2014:
Since the late 1980s the British intelligence services have expanded from a programme of targeted spying on certain individuals and organisations to a strategy of observing and where necessary recording all electronic information relating to telephone calls, faxes, text messages, emails and general internet activities on or from this island nation. In large part that change in tactics was due to the growth and importance of the internet and the increasing personalisation of computing technologies. However it also reflected the simple fact that if the institutions of a state believe they can do something that will serve the interests of their state they will probably do so, however questionable it may be.
Of course on a more practical level online and remote surveillance was expected to reduce employee numbers and budgets for intelligence-gathering organisations, as well as the obvious risks encountered in the deployment of field agents. For hefty initial investments long-term savings were expected from the new model of “spying by accountants” championed by the NSA and others…
…this is not just a case of the British intelligence services secretly “tapping into” Irish telephonic and internet traffic via land and maritime cables. Rather in most cases they are being provided free (or commercial) access to the information by companies associated with the use, ownership or maintenance of these cables. And it is all information, every email you send, every message, every internet search or visit, every upload or download, albeit collated and filtered through layers of software programmes before being flagged up for human review (if required).