Category: Editorial

david_cameronat GCHQ (384 x 256)

GCHQ – at the heart of the matter


The torrent of stories now being released by the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Der Spiegel and a number of other European papers about state internet surveillance is causing a crisis of confidence in the probity of governments.

Those papers using information released by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden have shown the extent of Government monitoring of internet traffic and stories about related activities by state organisations have thrown up serious concerns about how much trust should be placed in Governments to act in our interests without consulting either us or our representatives.

These revelations come at a time when businesses across the world are suffering an equally sustained attack from cyber criminals. They undermine the ability of national governments to deal with this plague.

President Obama may state that cybercrime is one of the biggest issues that the world now faces – but then he is seen to be engaging in practices that according to internet legal experts like Professor Fred Cate are ‘unethical‘. This has to mean the businesses and individuals will be remarkably wary about heeding the advice of their national governments offer to deal with the issue.

How can you trust a government’s advice when it too seems to be playing fast and loose with your data?

This is a very serious issue. Melissa Hathaway, President Obama’s former adviser on cyber security has called for the Internet Sservice Providers (ISPs) to be given a much wider role in dealing with computer crime. She is right – the ISPs could do a lot more.  After all they control the traffic that flows along the cables that go to our routers and computers.

Filtering traffic and identifying the computers that generate it is a task that they could execute.

A number of executives for leading ISPs have told Future Intelligence that they can accurately identify computers that have been infected by computer criminals and are generating spam and the computer virus systems (known as botnets) that infect other computers.

They are, however, loath to do so because they say they do not want people to think that they are monitoring their computers.

Yet, if they discover that an individual is abusing their bandwidth allocation by downloading large amounts of pirated video and audio material then they are quick to curtail their allowance.

We have also discovered, courtesy of Mr Snowden, that many of those same ISPs have been tacitly turning over material to the surveillance operations of the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK and providing them with relatively free access to data.

It is worth just reflecting on General Keith Alexander’s response to a story in the Washington Post that the NSA broke into Google and Yahoo servers.

In a response to CNN Alexander denied that they had broken in;

The servers and everything we do with those, those companies work with us. They are compelled to work with us. This isn’t something the court just said, ‘Would you please work with them and throw data over it.’ This is compelled. And this is specific requirements that come from a court order,” Alexander said at a cyber security conference in Washington.

This is not NSA breaking into any databases. It would be illegal for us to do that. So, I don’t know what the report is. But I can tell you factually we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers. We go through a court order.”

On the face of it this is a simple case of semantics. But it throws up a very important contradiction that poses some issues for those who are meant to be governing in our best interests.

If the interests of our society are served by clamping down on cybercrime that in its most extreme form invests its proceeds in people trafficking, prostitution, drugs, gun-running, paedophilia and other social ills then how are we meant to trust a Government to advise us on how to counter that by using technology companies they have suborned to access our information?

And when that Government allows its institutions to spy upon us and has a risible oversight on how they are using that information to draw conclusions we never see and cannot challenge?

As Professor Fred Cate says, one of the reasons for the War of Independence was because the British Government’s used arbitrary household searches which inevitably discovered misdemeanours which may not have been the object of the initial search – the result was the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In the UK, you are innocent until proven guilty. If the authorities pool your data from various online sources and search it against a crime that has not been committed – on the possibility that you may be involved in a future crime – impugns your innocence.

Would it not make more sense to rein in the security agencies or at least gain some meaningful oversight on their activities to make them accountable, so the public can once again believe that you, the Government are operating in our best interests?

This will mean that the public can trust you. Transparency should be absolute. It cannot come from one direction alone – a lack of transparency from Government can only generate suspicion.


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