Outgoing GCHQ director Iain Lobban (pictured) has defended the intelligence agency in his final speech before retiring at the end of October 2014.
GCHQ has come under strong criticism since US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the agency had powerful online surveillance capabilities.
“My staff are the embodiment of British values, not a threat to them,” Lobban told an invited audience at the Churchill War Rooms in London.
Lobban spoke of how the challenges have evolved over a career of 31 years, saying the world “continues to be a dangerous and unpredictable place”.
He said the work GCHQ is doing today remains as challenging as at any point in its history, and can often be about life and death.
In recent days, the director of the FBI, James Comey, and the head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre, Troels Oerting, have made separate calls for greater acceptance of the need for online surveillance of criminal activity.
Lobban said the “enormous exodus” to the internet presents new and unprecedented opportunities, as well as threats.
This presents new, complex challenges for GCHQ and requires its staff to continue to “dissect”, with surgical precision, fragments of information from the noise, within the bounds of the law and with respect for privacy.
“The people who work at GCHQ would sooner walk out the door than be involved in anything remotely resembling ‘mass surveillance’,” said Lobban.
He emphasised that the volume of data intercepted by GCHQ is a small fraction of all global communications.
“Of that, only a small percentage is ever viewed or listened to, as permitted by our legal framework and self-evidently constrained by resource.
“We are committed to doing our utmost to deliver security, at the same time as protecting privacy to the greatest extent possible,” he said.
Lobban asserted that “the public interest is served by some things remaining secret” and said even though the integrity of staff has been called into question repeatedly, they have responded with quiet determination to continue serving their country.
My staff are the embodiment of British values, not a threat to them
Iain Lobban, GCHQ
“It’s crucial that the targets whose communications we seek to exploit for the purposes of our national security don’t know what we can and can’t do,” he said in an oblique reference to Snowden.
Lobban said staff are drawn from the population and share their values with the nation.
“They are normal, decent human beings – people who spend their lives outside work shopping at Sainsbury’s or the Co-op and worrying about their kids, the weather, the football, cricket and rugby and what to have for tea. My staff are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job,” he said.
Lobban has not disclosed any future plans, but will be succeeded as director of GCHQ by Robert Hannigan, who is currently director general, defence and intelligence, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – a position he has held since 2010.
Hannigan was appointed by foreign secretary William Hague following a recruitment process which was open to crown and civil servants.
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