GCHQ has raised the hackles of privacy campaigners in the UK, but making proposals for a Great British Firewall to protect against malicious hackers.
The suggestion has come from Ciaran Martin who is Director General of Cyber at GCHQ and also heads up the National Cyber Security Centre. He was speaking at the Billington Cybersecurity Conference in Washington DC when the concept, which is thought to still be in its infancy, first came to light.
The Great British Firewall
Whilst Martin didn’t use the term ‘Great British Firewall’ directly, the moniker has quickly taken hold in media coverage of the speech, although, as some commentators have noted, the suggestion he is making is more like a ‘Great British Spam Filter’ than a Firewall.
He explained that GCHQ was in the process of investigating means to increase the level of filtering that can be used to protect British users. The users he is thinking of primarily are Government-hosted sites and those industries which are considered essential to national security, such as energy suppliers. But he was clear that it could be expanded to major businesses and beyond too.
Explaining the thinking behind the proposals, Martin said “what better way of providing automated defences at scale than by major private providers effectively blocking their customers from coming into contact with known malware and bad addresses.”
Why are these proposals being put forward now? Well, according to Martin GCHQ are concerned about the rising number of cyber security incidents they are detecting against key infrastructure and government targets. He said the current rate was around 200 a month and claimed this was double the number they were detecting last year and seemed likely to grow.
But for Privacy campaigners, these justifications have carried little water and they have likened the proposal to ‘putting the fox in charge of the chicken house’.
Firstly, they are uncomfortable with such power being given to an organisation which does a great deal to intrude on the privacy of British citizens online as it is and also has a close working relationship with the NSA in America’s whose track record is even worse.
Indeed, Michael Harris, who advises Don’t Spy On US, an umbrella group for privacy organisations, went even further. “It is outrageous. It is what China is up to. This is taking place in a context in which the government is clamping down on freedom of expression and extending surveillance.”
The potential for how these new proposals could be used to stymie freedom of speech and political criticism is a big concern with many campaigners. British intelligence services do have form with floating ideas without giving due consideration to potential long-term consequences. This suggestion does look to fall into that category.
For their part, GCHQ have sought to reassure privacy advocates, claiming that privacy will be ‘hardwired’ into any future plans. But given their scant disregard for online privacy in so many of their other programmes, these promises are likely to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The National Cyber Security Centre will open formally in the next few months, so more details of these proposals are likely to emerge in due course.
But state censorship is a growing problem right around the world, and for now, it is looking like it might be on its way to the UK too.