LONDON – The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency on Tuesday warned there were thousands of Islamist extremists in the country who regard the public as “legitimate targets,” and defended the use of snooping technology.
MI5 chief Andrew Parker said the agency was “tackling threats on more fronts than ever before” during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London, his first since taking over in April.
The director-general said he expected one or two attempts at major acts of terrorism in Britain each year.
He highlighted al-Qaida and its affiliates as presenting “the most direct and immediate threats,” and said there was “good reason to be concerned about Syria.”
Citing the deadly mall attack in Kenya and the ongoing Syrian civil war, Parker also said terrorism had become more diffuse and more unpredictable. He said terrorists were also turning to technological advancements such as encryption to hide their tracks.
“Threats are diversifying, but not diminishing,” Parker said. “The Internet, technology and big data are transforming our society. . . . We can’t stop every plot, much as we try and much as we would like to. There are choices ahead that will determine whether we can sustain what we do, or accept that it will erode.”
But he dismissed claims that electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ was listening in on everyday communications as “utter nonsense” and defended the use of snooping technology, as revealed in U.S. security documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
“Far from being gratuitous harvesters of private information, in practice we focus our work very carefully and tightly against those who intend harm,” he said, adding safeguards were in place to protect citizens.
“In some quarters there seems to be a vague notion that we monitor everyone and all their communications, browsing at will through people’s private lives for anything that looks interesting. That is, of course, utter nonsense.”
He blasted the leak, saying it caused “enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques.”
“Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists,” he added.
GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters, is based in southwest England and monitors communications worldwide for intelligence purposes.
Documents leaked by Snowden were reported by The Guardian newspaper in June to show that GCHQ was using data harvested by the secret U.S. PRISM surveillance program.
Three groups filed a recent lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights, accusing Britain’s eavesdropping agency of using its online surveillance programs to violate people’s privacy.
English PEN, Big Brother Watch and the Open Rights Group claim that GCHQ acted illegally in collecting the vast amounts of data, including the contents of emails and social media messages.
MI5 and the nation’s MI6 foreign intelligence service rely heavily on tips and backup from GCHQ.