UK Intelligence Boss: We Had All This Info And Totally Failed To Prevent Charlie Hebdo Attack… So Give Us More Info

from the um,-what? dept

We already wrote about surveillance state opportunists like Michael Hayden using the Charlie Hebdo attacks as evidence for why the surveillance state should be allowed to spy on everyone, and now the head of the UK’s MI5 intelligence agency has similarly used the attack as an excuse to demand more surveillance powers:

The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has called for new powers to help fight Islamist extremism, warning of a dangerous imbalance between increasing numbers of terrorist plots against the UK and a drop in the capabilities of intelligence services to snoop on communications….


?If we are to do our job, MI5 will continue to need to be able to penetrate their communications as we have always done. That means having the right tools, legal powers and the assistance of companies which hold relevant data. Currently, this picture is patchy.?

What’s especially sickening about this is that this argument “works” for surveillance state opportunists whether they succeed or fail. If they actually do stop terrorist threats (and in the same speech Parker claims they have stopped a few planned attacks in “recent months” but fails to provide any details), they use that to claim that the surveillance works and they need to do more. Yet when they fail to stop an attack — as in the Charlie Hebdo case — they don’t say it’s because the surveillance failed, instead, it’s because they didn’t have enough data or enough powers to collect more data. In other words, succeed or fail, the argument is always the same: give us more access to more private data.

And they’ll claim this again and again, even as it’s been shown over and over again that grabbing more garbage data actually makes it that much more difficult to find relevant data. Piling more hay onto the haystack doesn’t make the needles easier to find. It makes them much harder to find and often sends you digging through piles of hay for a needle you think you saw, but isn’t really there. Yet that never seems to enter the equation. It’s as if those in the surveillance business don’t understand the idea of quantity over quality.

And this goes beyond just the general desire for “more” power, to a ridiculous belief among some in the power of algorithms to sort through this data. The power of “big data” can be useful in many ways, but people get so obsessed with the magic of algorithms and the power in “big data” that they forget that these things are imperfect, and the ability to sort through massive piles of data for relevant information and links is incredibly limited and faulty. Yet, because a computer does it, they get all excited and think it’s all powerful. It’s this mistaken belief in the power of the algorithms that leads them to always assume that “more data is better” and the end result, unfortunately, is continuously stripping away privacy, in search of some tiny marginal benefit that may not even exist.

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Comments on “UK Intelligence Boss: We Had All This Info And Totally Failed To Prevent Charlie Hebdo Attack… So Give Us More Info”

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Michael (profile) says:

Let’s examine his statement a little:

If we are to do our job, MI5 will continue to need to be able to penetrate their communications as we have always done.

Ok, so they have “always” been able to penetrate their communications and apparently been doing so.

That means having the right tools, legal powers and the assistance of companies which hold relevant data. Currently, this picture is patchy.

So they have been penetrating the communications successfully. That means they must have the necessary tools and assistance – what’s been patchy? their legal authority to be doing all of this?

David says:

They probably already had the data they needed...

However, they lack the people and skills to be able to be able to see the threat, or overwhelmed by data so the threat got lost in the noise. Turning on more lights doesn’t help you find a candle in the dark.

Again, it presupposes that the ‘data’ they are looking for it travelling over a public voice/data network. What if they are passing notes, talking to each other, actually meeting face-to-face in person. If so, there is no ‘data’ they can search in order to detect this, and if this was public, it would be shown that the Emperor has no clothes. They need to do real investigative work, and that’s not something you can do behind a desk looking at a screen.

jilocasin (profile) says:

It's the old witch's test

Throw ____ in the lake, if ___ sinks (and dies) ___ was innocent, if ___ floats (survives) burn ____ at the stake.

Just substitute privacy/civil liberties/etc. for witch and you get the current government(intelligence organization) mindset.

Same basic idea in use since the inquisition (and before). Glad to see they are recycling old ideas.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's the old witch's test

Essentially the UK intelligence community is as on the ball as Sir Bedevere the Wise in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Thought it was a BBC documentary? They’re (MP) good, but they’re not that good. The production values (aka money invested) of Now, For Something Completely Different vs. BBC nature shows don’t compare.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothing to do with this event.
It’s a political power play to ensure funding is maintained, as the major political parties in the UK have started gearing up for an election.

MI5 come out and say they need continued funding etc because none of the political parties would want to contradict that given what’s just happened. Easy political points to try and ensure that after the next election they keep their funding.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am so fed up with the mentality that passes for what seems a majority in politics today. While this particular article is about MI5, the same arguments are used in the US to justify expansion.

Were the US not so set on providing freedom of speech examples through drones and hellfire missiles I would imagine there would be a lot less people pissed off at the west. Get our troops and war machines out of the Middle East, get our security people out of meddling with their social structures, and remove those walking around with a target on their back saying shoot me and much of this would go away.

On the other side of the coin, unless the Islamic community starts whole sale disowning these terror attacks, it will be assumed that all of the Islamic religion are either terror supporters or at best sympathizers. The disowning of these terror groups as well as the shunning of them is required and that is not optional. Failure to do that means the Islamic communities as a whole will be treated as part of the problem by the rest of the world.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t know where I read it maybe even here(if someone knows pls link) but there was a nice example why using algorithms and more data just doesnt work.

The example was something like this: Assume an algorithm is 99% correct and you have 100 terrorists in a 10 mio country. It then will give you about 100’000 names which include those 100 terrorists but 99’900 of those are just innocent people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

you already have a phone that can be monitored 24/7, 0 days ftw! But although some high ranking ex politician said something like the first reply said Im not sure if the general public would agree because it is more likly that one of the innocent are a family member. But on the other side, if one or some of those innocent protests you could call them a terrorist as well or at least they would be helping terrosists(weird but if you jump one or two steps it works, think about it).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

… the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer.. – William Blackstone (1765)

I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent. – Dick Cheney (2014)

An awful lot of our “leaders” love to say that Islam needs to adapt and modernize to be accepted by 21st century humanity. Some of these same leaders seem to need to go back to the 18th, if they want the same for themselves.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The usual excuse is they don’t want to ‘give away their methods’, except that one falls apart if you examine it even the slightest.

They don’t have to explain every single step that they used, just give a general outline, and it’s not like those who had their actions thwarted aren’t aware of it, so they wouldn’t be giving potential threats any information that they didn’t already have.

No, as past examples(’54 attacks stopped! Okay, maybe 4… alright, perhaps 2… fine, we haven’t stopped a single attack, happy?!’) have shown, the real reason they don’t want to ‘brag’ about the attacks they’ve ‘stopped’ is because doing so allows people to pick apart the justifications they use, and point out that nothing they did required what they claim is absolutely necessary.

Anonymous Coward says:

when are people going to wake up and realise that this whole exercise is to gain access to more PUBLIC data! they are not interested in even trying to get data on extremists or any other group, terrorist or not! this whole thing is about making sure governments have access to the data that will enable them to preempt any form of national disturbance, any marches or rallies against the government because of the fuck ups they are making and the powers being given to private industries. all this shit talk about stopping terrorist attacks is simply that, shit talk! as for the plots that have been ‘interrupted’ those statements carry about as much weight as they did when the NSA and FBI were saying the same thing. nothing but total bollocks!! in most cases, the organisations are far to careful to be caught, so all the info they have wasn’t any good and getting more wont improve the situation, other than for what i stated above. this is of course, just my opinion, but until proven otherwise, i wont be changing my mind any time soon!!

That One Guy (profile) says:

9/11, the Boston bombing, and now this… funny, but in every one of those instances the agencies in question had the needed information, yet failed to do anything constructive with it. It’s almost as though not having ‘enough’ data isn’t the problem, but not being able to use the data they already have is

Nah, that’s crazy talk, clearly if they had all the data they could have done something in time… /s

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Government logic:

Close, but not quite. More along the lines of:

There is a lot of hay stacks and some of them may have some needles in them so we should really put all of the haystacks together and run them all through a not-so-great needle finding machine that generally just spits out a lot of smaller haystacks that we then have to look through again, but it keeps us all employed and we get to play with very large budgets.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Government logic:

Hmmm, maybe there’s a way to turn all those haystacks into something useful, like combine them with mud to make bricks and build something useful, like a series of gallows for not so intelligent intelligence people. The needles would become just more structural support (unless they stick out, and then they would be easier to find).

Anonymous Coward says:

These 3-letter spy agencies could have 100% perfect mass spying systems in place where no electronic communications of any kind ever escape their grasp. They could store all the world’s electronic communications from now to the end of time and have massive, powerful computer systems able to piece together all of it at a moments notice.

They could do all of this…and they would still lose. There would still be attacks where people are injured or killed. All it takes is for those people interested in planning an attack to never communicate electronically, you know, like how it’s been done for centuries before computers became commonplace. What good is an electronic spying apparatus if the people planning the attack don’t communicate electronically?

What the NSA, CIA and other agencies are looking for is the God-like power of foreknowledge. There are over 7 billion people on this planet and it is not possible to know what they’re all doing, planning or talking about, for even a fraction of the time. But, that’s not going to stop these agencies from totally destroying the privacy and lives of all us in their futile attempt to play God.

Anonymous Coward says:

You know who i think about sometimes, those who are’nt, lets say technically savvy, who dont know much about technology to realise how invasive this can get, how invasive it already IS, and are the first to say

“This is what govrnment say we should do,….okay then”

This is essentially the real world equivalent of having a spy/cop in your home or anywhere with a smart device checking on you 24/7

If you’re gonna tell me they wouldnt do something like that, well how the hell do you think their gonna “catch terrorist” then, if one crisis after another crisis raises the bar higher and higher……….no, some folks dont want to think about that aspect, instead, they focus on where the chew chew plane is going

I stand by my point, but i apologise for my mockery of good honest yet misguided individuals, i do it when im frustrated, and the statuo’s quo has a unique way of frustrating me to no end

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: These Guys Were Also On The US No-Fly List

They also have been watched by the french police which had a hint from the algerian agency that they planed an attack a few days before it happened. Meaning the whole spying failed and proved that whatever they know doesnt help. It is really sad if you look at it. They do have all the knowledge they want and still cant stop people. If I would be as efficiant in my job I wouldnt have it for long.

Anonymous Coward says:

Benjamin Franklin tried to warn us about sacrificing liberty for a false sense of security. His words were, and still are, very wise.

He knew what this country would turn into if the scaremongers won. We now know he was 100% accurate in his predictions. A true visionary and founding father of what used to be the land of the free, and home of the brave.

jim says:


I still wonder what they propose to do with the data. Like in the past, sit on it? Isn’t that a violation of their basic tenet of operations? Seems as if they are aiding the enemy! The enemy being the bad guys.
Now if they would prove what they have, could we not defund them for the good of the people. They are not doing their job. But then corporate welfare is okay, it’s just civic welfare that needs to be cut.

Anonymous Coward says:

More info makes organized stalking easier

Put more hay on the haystack that will make things a whole lot easier. Those idiots at MI5 will never get anything right. Some of us know the real reason they want to have access to all this information.. it would make it easier for them to target whistleblowers and another reason is that it allows them to use the info they have on targeted individuals to harass them, look up organized stalking. If you think MI5 or any of the other inteligence agecies work to protect you then you are very mistaken, they work for the central banks.

Anonymous Coward says:

We should concentrate on car accidents instead of terrorism

It is amazing that a handful of deaths due to terrorism has everyone running scared yet nobody cares about car accidents. A quick Google search turns up that 17,800 people were killed by terrorists across the world in 2013. With most of those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Packistan. In the US and Europe I imagine the number is quite small.

Another search shows that 33,561 people died in car accidents in the US alone in 2012. So over twice the people die in car accidents in 1 country than die due in terror attacks around the world and we mobilize the worlds 3 letter agencies, military and police forces?

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