British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday said the mass collection of private data by the security services is “vital” for public safety after a report found that UK’s spy services should continue to be allowed access to bulk surveillance data to prevent terrorist attacks.
The ‘Bulk Powers Review’ conducted by the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation concluded that there is no viable alternative to the current process of harvesting large amounts of data from emails and other sources.
“The review team was given information which demonstrated that there was no viable alternative method by which these individuals (terrorist suspects) could have been identified,” said David Anderson, a legal professional who led the review.
It had been ordered as part of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will give Britain’s security services – GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 – wider powers to hold bulk data.
“I am grateful to David Anderson for this report, which follows a detailed and thorough review in which the government has provided unfettered and unprecedented access to the most sensitive information about our Security and Intelligence Agencies’ capabilities,” said May, who had ordered the review when she was UK Home Secretary.
“Mr Anderson’s report demonstrates how the bulk powers contained in the Investigatory Powers Bill are of crucial importance to our security and intelligence agencies. 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,” May said.
“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,” she added.
Bulk interception differs from targeted interception -the bugging of a suspect’s phone for example – in that it involves the harvesting of large quantities of data from the internet and emails.
The data is then sifted and sorted by investigators. The security services will be able to collect such “bulk” data under the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is currently going through British Parliament.
It will enable them view details of millions of communications, including when they are sent and who people communicate with, although they will be unable to read the content of their messages.
The bill has been dubbed as snooper’s charter by some human rights groups over fears it will give spies complete access to public data.
However, Anderson’s report says the security services need even more powers to hack into people’s phones and computers to identify those who pose a threat to Britain because of increasing levels of encryption used by US technology giants.
The review said bulk powers were used by Britain’s spy agencies for “cyber-defence, counter-espionage and counterterrorism,” as well as investigations into child sexual abuse and organised crime.