GCHQ’s director general of cyber security, Ciaran Martin, today refused to talk about the resurrection of the so-called “Snooper’s Charter” in his opening keynote at InfoSecurity Europe 2015, and instead launched a defence of the spy agency’s actions.
Telling delegates that it’s “absolutely not our aim to slow down or stop the march of technology and even if it was, we wouldn’t be allowed to,” Martin deftly sidestepped concerns around surveillance, even when the issue was put to him in a direct question from the audience.
Asked how the industry should react to a situation that has led to one digital firm leaving the UK because of the government’s surveillance policies, Martin quoted a Confederation of British Industry report from 2014 that found the government’s cyber security measures had had no impact on the UK’s high-tech industry.
He said GCHQ’s reach “only works because we have a world-class intelligence capability to draw on”.
“If we want to protect the UK from the darkest aspects of cyberspace, we have to be able to understand how it works,” he said.
“That intelligence is the source of well-known controversy around privacy, and I can’t talk and won’t talk about that in any detail today… it’s for parliament to debate.”
In an attempt to allay fears that GCHQ is prying into everyone’s personal lives, Martin said that it is “simply not big enough to put a big cyber security umbrella over the whole UK. No organisation could do that over any country, and we couldn’t do it on our own”.
He then went on to highlight the “positive impact” GCHQ’s work is having on the UK’s economy and society.
“The transformative technological evolution already underway is a hugely significant economic and social opportunity,” said Martin.
“And harnessing this transformation [in order to realise] greater economic opportunities, better public services and all sorts of other benefits is something the government attaches great importance to.”
“Power, money and propaganda” are what drive cyber threats, said Martin. He said the attack on Sony Pictures in December 2014 was a good example of a cyber attack designed to deliver a propaganda message.
“We didn’t [previously] really think about propaganda as a motive. The Sony attack had a destructive element, but was mostly aimed at making a splash. The same is true of any hacktivists,” said Martin.
To conclude, Martin tried to reassure the audience that GCHQ has to operate within a stict legal framework.
“All I will say is that everyone in GCHQ is acutely conscious that we’re entrusted with very significant powers under the law, and we use those laws extremely carefully,” said Martin.
Quoting the Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Anthony May’s verdict on GCHQ’s actions, Martin finished:
“Does GCHQ engage in the mass intrusion into the private lives of law-abiding citizens? The answer, and I quote, is ‘emphatically no’.”
Do you believe Ciaran Martin? Should the UK enterprise sit back and wait for parliament to pass new laws on surveillance, or does it deserve more of a say on this “economic opportunity” that technology will drive, but surveillance and mistrust could hold back?