The three heads of the UK intelligence agencies gave an account of themselves to a parliamentary committee today and sought to re-assure people that our secrets are safe with them.
Sir Iain Lobban from GCHQ, Sir John Sawers from MI6, and Andrew Parker from MI5 sought to defend criticism that their powers were too great and that peoples’ privacy was threatened.
MI5’s Andrew Parker said: “Secret is not sinister.”
GCHQ head Sir Iain Lobban said: “We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls and reading the emails of everyone. The internet is a great way to anonymise information.”
He said that if you think of the internet as an enormous hay stack, GCHQ is trying to find needles even though much of the information is innocent. “We do not look at the surrounding hay. We don’t want to delive into innocent phone calls and emails.”
“I believe a government’s first duty is to protect the people. Some of that work is secret. I would say that I believe certain methods should remain secret. Secret doesn’t mean sinister and I’d like to hammer that home.
“We are subject to the law and I’m sure that’s true of my sister agencies too.
“If you’re a terrorist or a criminal there’s a possibility that your communications will be monitored. If you’re not connected [to such people] you won’t be monitored.”
Sir Ian said that there were examples of terrorists talking to each other and discussing ways to change their methods because of Edward Snowden’s revelations. He said that will make the spy agencies’ jobs far harder over the next years. The mosaic of threats from different sources were all taking advantage of information published following the Snowden leaks.
Sir John Sawers said that the leaks had been very damaging.