It’s an online war. The old weapons won’t do

I don’t like snooping either, but if we want to stop terrorists we must be free to monitor the technology they use

This week MPs, civil liberties campaigners and human rights lawyers stampeded to the studios to oppose plans to record internet communications that the Home Secretary says are ‘vital’ to combat serious crime and terrorism.

In the past, I have had responsibility for authorising and carrying out surveillance against terrorist suspects, criminals and insurgents. I always felt uncomfortable eavesdropping on private phone conversations or covertly watching people at home with hidden cameras or powerful optics, or reading their e-mails and text messages.

Eavesdropping cardinals
Henri Adolphe Laissement, Cardinals in an antechamber at the Vatican

Those of us who have worked in intelligence know how intrusive and distasteful such activity is, especially if the suspect later proves to be innocent, and that is why we never did it lightly. So I wouldn’t hesitate to join the stampede if I believed that the Government’s proposals were either disproportionate or unnecessary. But they are not.
Despite the anxieties of Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil rights group Liberty, who believes that the changes would undermine the coalition’s commitments to human rights, they do not in fact represent any significant new intrusion into our privacy. The only rights that would be undermined are the rights of terrorists and criminals to kill, maim, extort, rape, deal drugs, kidnap and defraud.

There is no intention to acquire new powers to intercept communications or examine their contents, which will remain — in all cases — prohibited unless authorised by a minister, normally the Home Secretary.

The proposals simply require internet service providers to store some data — records of who communicates with whom and when on e-mail, social media, online gaming, messaging and internet voice systems such as Skype. This is little different to similar data
already stored by phone companies.

As with telephones, to access the stored internet data, police and intelligence officers will have to build a persuasive case that shows protection of the public requires it and that it would be consistent with the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the
European Convention on Human Rights. Necessity and proportionality are the crucial tests and every case will be subject to independent scrutiny by the Interception of Communications Commissioner. Of course we should be concerned about how secure our private data will really be under the new arrangements, especially after recent blunders by the Government and commercial firms over data protection. This is the issue that will rightly worry most reasonable people, and is the area most in need of rigorous challenge.

But just as generals are often accused of fighting the last war, those who oppose these new proposals are in danger of making that same fatal mistake. They seem to have forgotten that terrorists will seek the latest weapons and means to advance their cause.

Even those who would bomb us into a Saudi-style Sharia state would no doubt follow the axiom that ‘use of advanced messaging technology does not imply an endorsement of western industrial civilisation’. Terrorists change their methods; so must we.

Walk down any high street in Britain, go into any Starbucks or McDonald’s, travel on any bus or train, and you see young people with thumbs flickering rapidly over the keypads of their smartphones. They are e-mailing, instant messaging, tweeting and Facebooking. This is their culture; anybody who believes that the culture of a young terrorist is any different is simply out of touch.

The last terrorist war we fought was against the Provisional IRA. On our way to defeating its vicious campaigns of bombing, shooting, intimidation and extortion, we made extensive and very effective use of phone data and radio intercept. Those were the communication tools of Irish republicans. The internet simply did not figure.

Today’s war is against the global threat from Islamist extremism. It is not going away until the Caliphate is re-established or Islam experiences a reformation. Like the rest of us, its aggressors have been shifting from communicating by phone to the internet. That means the security services who seek to defend us against their depredations have experienced a significant loss of communications data in the past five years.

Identifying whom a suspect is communicating with can lead from criminal to criminal and link up entire drugs gangs, paedophile rings or terrorist networks and their targets.

Some of the most hardened criminals and terrorists are, of course, savvy enough to circumvent our efforts to exploit their communications. But large numbers of those who threaten us fortunately lack sophistication and continue to haemorrhage vital information.

And even the most serious terrorists are still human and still make human errors. In 2010 Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a top-level al-Qaeda courier, took a phone call from an old friend.

Months later, the communications data gleaned from that one call led US Navy Seals to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and to Osama bin Laden.

In Britain, communications data has played a significant role in every important MI5 terrorist investigation since 9/11, with more than 240 suspects convicted of terrorism offences.

Working for the Joint Intelligence Committee and Cobra, I read intercept transcripts and studied terrorist network charts generated from communications data from both at home and overseas. Some of the networks we monitored were plotting to carry out mass casualty attacks, to recruit terrorists, fund extremist activity, kidnap, assassinate and develop chemical and biological weapons using human guinea pigs.

Against some very tough targets, I witnessed our intelligence services and police doing a remarkable job fighting these networks both here and abroad. They are highly skilled, dedicated and professional people, intent not on ‘snooping’ on you or me, but on protecting our lives. To deny them the ability to match the technological advances of the criminals and terrorists they are up against is like allowing detectives fingerprint technology but forbidding them DNA. It is to condemn our security services to fight the last war.

Published in The Times, 7 April 2012. © Richard Kemp