GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban, has insisted that the spy agency’s secret methods are “not sinister”, when he was questioned, alongside the heads of MI5 and MI6 by MPs in public for the first time.
The exercise formed part of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)’s investigation into the operations and capabilities of the intelligence agencies – although most of those sessions are held behind closed doors and must remain secret.
When asked whether the real cyber threat came from GCHQ seeking to collect everyone’s data and communications – as has been alleged by the documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – Lobban seeked to clarify GCHQ’s role.
“We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the e-mails of the majority, of the vast majority. That would not be proportionate, it would ot be legal. We do not do it. It would be very nice if terrorists or serious criminals used a particular method of communication and everybody else used something else – that is not the case,” he said.
He emphasised that the GCHQ’s employees or “his people” are motivated by saving the lives of British forces and fighting terrorists.
“If you are a terrorist, a serious criminal, a proliferator, a foreign intelligence target or if your activities pose a genuine threat to the national or economic security of the UK, there is a possibility that your communications will be monitored, as in we will seek to read, we will seek to listen to you.
“If you are not, and if you are not in contact with one of those people, then you won’t be. We are not entitled to. That is true actually whether you are British, foreign and wherever you are in the world,” he said.
The chairman of the ISC, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, then asked Lobban why the British public were not entitled to know that GCHQ was sifting large amounts of communications data for these purposes.
“I would say that I believe certain methods should remain secret – I am happy to talk about whether or not there has been damage from that. I don’t think ‘secret’ means ‘sinister’,” he said.
“If we make these things public they are public to [terrorists, spies, and proliferators] too and we lose important operational advantage which can sometimes be quite fragile,” he added.