In a remarkable intervention into the UKs Investigatory Powers Bill, a former technical director of the National Security Agency has labelled a key review into the powers it will hand intelligence services as “fiction”.
Speaking to Computer Weekly, Bill Binney who rose to be Technical Director of the NSA at the end of a 30-year career with the agency was scathing in his assessment of the Bulk Powers Review.
Bulk Powers Review
This review was conducted by David Anderson, the Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. The review gave security cleared yet independent experts the opportunity to assess the case for the UKs Intelligence agencies undertaking the bulk collection of communication data from UK citizens.
Under the Bill, which is yet to be passed into law, they would be permitted to collect the phone call and internet metadata of all UK citizens, intercept phone and internet communications occurring outside the UK, hack into private computers and other devices, and collect bulk personal datasets on people living in the UK, whether innocent or guilty of any crimes.
The conclusion of this report was that there was a clear operational case for the powers; a finding which was met by significant skepticism by campaign groups.
Now, Bill Binney has weighed into the debate, telling Computer Weekly that the report “reads like a novel” and fails to address the “underlying technical issues” behind the powers.
He highlights a glaring omission from the Bulk Powers Review, which is the existing arrangements between the NSA in the USA and the British Intelligence Services. He says this arrangement gives the British Intelligence Services access to significantly more data than has been publicly acknowledged, including data on phone calls, emails, and web browsing, which is routinely gathered by the NSA.
Binney told Computer Weekly, “They imply [in the Bulk Powers Report] that GCHQ only has the content available for a short period of time, but with the access to the NSA database, GCHQ could have access to data for an indeterminate period. That is a major issue that has not been discussed,”
To emphasise the extent of the NSA’s bulk collection programmes, Binney highlighted the size of their data storage facilities which he claimed proved they do not filter any of the content they collect.
He also referenced a comment by a former FBI Director to the US Senate, when he said it was possible to “pull together” all past and future emails from any individual. This would only be possible if all previous emails were being collected and stored somewhere.
Binney also pointed out the length of time that this agreement between the NSA and the British Intelligence Services has been in place, saying they it had been in place since 2001 and went on to compare the practice to the state surveillance undertaken by the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia.
It is not the first time Binney has intervened into the issue of bulk surveillance. He left the NSA back in 2001 as a whistleblower and since then has been a vocal critic of their surveillance practices in the US media.
But this intervention into the debate here in the UK is an embarrassment for the UK authorities, and particularly the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, and comes at a time when the British public are less and less comfortable with excessive state surveillance.
David Anderson refused to comment on what Binney has said and as the Investigatory Powers Bill enjoys cross-party support, it seems likely to make it onto the statute book sooner or later, although there are efforts currently taking place in the House of Lords to add extra safeguard provisions.
But Binney has highlighted a glaring omission which will only fuel the perception held by many that in trying to force this Bill through, the British public is not being given the full picture.