UK Government Admits Spying On Innocent Citizens, Reveals Flawed Assumption Underlying 'Collect It All' Surveillance

from the illegal,-unnecessary,-inefficient-and-counterproductive dept

Back in May, Techdirt reported on a bold attempt by a group of privacy rights groups to take legal action against the UK government in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about GCHQ's massive surveillance of the Internet. The move has already produced an important admission from the authorities, reported here by The Telegraph:

Britain's spy agencies do gather the communications of innocent people in order to target genuine suspects, Government lawyers have admitted but insisted it was lawful and appropriate.
Surprisingly, the UK government's lawyers also claimed that it was "common ground" that such an approach was necessary:
In a written submission to the tribunal, James Eadie QC, for the Government, said it was "common ground" that the only way to intercept communications of a suspect was to "intercept a substantially greater volume of communications and then apply a selection stage to identify the communications in question".

"In other words, it is common ground that the only practical way to find and reconstruct most external communication 'needles' is to look through the communications' 'haystack' ".

But he added: "Unless the claimants wish to submit that the intelligence services should not be able to obtain the external communications that are needed for the purposes of national security, they must accept some form of interception regime that permits substantially more communications to be intercepted that are actually being sought."
This statement is extremely important, because it lays bare the fallacy at the heart of the "collect it all" approach of surveillance practised by GCHQ and the NSA. It conveniently ignores the fact that until recently this was not how the intelligences services worked, for the simple reason that it was impossible to gather communications on such a vast scale (for example, opening all letters, or tapping all phones), or to search through them. Instead, painstaking work applying traditional spycraft techniques -- HUMINT (human intelligence), SIGINT (signals intelligence), OSINT (open source intelligence) and GEOINT (geospatial intelligence) -- was used to narrow down interest to a small and manageable group of suspects, before then proceeding to intensive surveillance of just that group.

Today, as admitted by the UK government in its submission, it has reversed this approach. It gathers huge quantities of data about large numbers of people, mostly irrelevant and quite innocent, and then tries to find persons of interest -- the "needles" as the usual metaphor puts it -- amongst that "haystack". This is largely a matter of convenience and technical capabilities: it is now relatively easy to "collect it all", and then sift through it, and so has become the norm.

But there is no reason why it has to be done this way, or indeed why it should, given the collateral damage to privacy it entails. Moreover, the constant complaint that intelligence services are "losing capabilities" because the volume of communications traffic continues to grow, is purely because those services try to gather so much indiscriminately. If they applied the older method of narrowing down the field before gathering communications data, they would not be swamped, and would not be "losing capabilities."

This latest admission by the UK authorities, and the attempt to claim its view as "common ground", when it is anything but, exposes the underlying weakness of its intelligence-gathering approach. Privacy rights groups can now focus on dismantling this lazy assumption and on showing why mass surveillance of so many innocent citizens is not just illegal and unnecessary but also highly inefficient and counterproductive.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 4:54am

    Real subtle there

    "Unless the claimants wish to submit that the intelligence services should not be able to obtain the external communications that are needed for the purposes of national security, they must accept some form of interception regime that permits substantially more communications to be intercepted that are actually being sought."

    Translation: 'Unless you're in support of terrorists and their actions, then you have nothing to complain about, because we need all this useless data in order to fight the boogi- I mean terrorists. Because terrorists. And national security.'

    They're not even willing to entertain the idea that maybe scooping up everything and then trying to find the tiny percentage of it that's actually useful might not be the best way to go about it(or might be causing more damage than it prevents), but are rather starting from the position that it absolutely is, and phrasing their words such that the only possible reason someone could have for objecting to what they're doing is because they want terrorists to be able to act unchecked.

    No debate, no discussion, no weighing of the evidence of costs vs gains possible, simply 'Either you support us, or you support the terrorists'. Zealotry and fanaticism are bad enough normally, but when those traits are describing the stances of governments...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Ninja (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 5:35am

    Re: Real subtle there

    And much like any Zealotry and fanaticism the Government stance is easily debunked by very basic logic. Except that regular zealots and fanatics don't have the weapons and the military to impose their beliefs.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 6:49am

    This explains why GCHQ collected millions of Yahoo webcam images from innocent people over a six month period. They must have been using "Yahoo" as a selector.

    GCHQ considers us nothing more than caged animals in a zoo. International human rights don't apply to us zoo animals.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/gchq-nsa-webcam-images-internet-yahoo

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 6:53am

    Toss some more hay in my cage. I'm getting hungry.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 7:00am

    Re:

    What!?

    You want MORE!?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 7:04am

    The problem with the "finding needles in a haystack" approach is that the most efficient solution is to set fire to the hay and use a large magnet to extract the needles from the ashes.

    The only things that come out unscathed are the magnets.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    icon
    Geno0wl (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 7:43am

    What happened to the "Intelligence" part?

    So we used to rely on humans to follow intuition, self correcting pattern recognition, and decades and decades of training and history to track a handful of people.
    Now we want to use computers using simplistic, rigid, and relatively new. Run by people who are NOT "spys". They track everybody in a slim hopes(of which proof they have yet to produce to the public) of catching a "bad guy".

    My big question look at that is....why does the old regime of hard nosed "real" intel guys put up with that? I mean Bin Laden was NOT found with PRISM or any of those other programs. He was found with good old fashioned ground intel work. Do those field ops just not care and view it as just as much noise as the public does as well?

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 8:01am

    "why does the old regime of hard nosed "real" intel guys put up with that"

    Who do you think would listen to them? They're probably on board the snowball gathering pace downhill just like the rest of us. The unholy alliance of greed, fear, profiteering and powergrabs is pushing all reason aside.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    tomczerniawski, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 8:02am

    Maybe "the terrorists" aren't such bad people. We should start asking them for tips. It's the only way to compete with governments that rule through terror.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 8:34am

    well, yes.  it is highly inefficient and counterproductive if your goal is apprehending bad people.  my suspicion is it is utterly essential for carrying out the true goals of the effort, whatever exactly they are.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    AricTheRed (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 8:52am

    Re: Re: Real subtle there

    DEATH TO ALL FANATICS!!!!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    AricTheRed (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 8:54am

    Re: Re: Re: Real subtle there

    That was the text of a bumper sticker included in Steve Jackson's Iluminatti Card game back around 1990.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 9:09am

    Re:

    Now that the game has changed, the number of people needed to sift through the haystack is larger than when they did their work. To go back they would need to cut a lot of employees and cut their budget. Those are things you never want to be responsible for.

    Besides, this is a military organisation. If the general or admiral tells you to do something, you do it, no questions asked!

    Basucally, yeah the unholy alliance.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 9:38am

    So they are admitting to breaking EU laws, awesome.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Lars (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 10:03am

    Re:

    I'm sorry, but you've reached your ration limit for this period.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    Lars (profile), Jul 16th, 2014 @ 10:05am

    Re: What happened to the "Intelligence" part?

    "why does the old regime of hard nosed "real" intel guys put up with that?"

    Orders are orders. They don't have much of a choice.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2014 @ 5:41pm

    Re:

    I was wondering where the horse with no name went.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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