GCHQ’s spying powers ‘play important role in fighting terror’

GCHQ is one of the agencies which deploys so-called 'bulk capabilities' to fight terrorism. Picture: SWNS
GCHQ is one of the agencies which deploys so-called 'bulk capabilities' to fight terrorism. Picture: SWNS
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Powers used by Britain’s spy agencies to hoover up vast troves of data play an important role in fighting terrorism and serious crime, a major review has concluded.

So-called bulk capabilities deployed by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have a “clear operational purpose”, terror laws watchdog David Anderson QC found.

His findings are a boost to the government after a raft of proposed new spying laws sparked privacy concerns.

Mr Anderson’s report, published yesterday, said bulk powers “play an important part in identifying, understanding and averting threats in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and further afield”.

The techniques are used across the range of agency activity, from cyber-defence, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism to child sexual abuse and organised crime, the review found.

Mr Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, described the pace of technological change as “breathtaking”.

The inquiry recommended that a panel of independent academics and industry experts are appointed to advise on the impact of changing technology, and how the intelligence agencies could reduce the “privacy footprint” of their activities.

Bulk powers – covering a range of techniques used to gather large volumes of information – are among the most controversial tactics covered by the landmark Investigatory Powers Bill, which is going through Parliament.

The review looked at four bulk powers which can only be used by the three intelligence agencies:

l Bulk Interception – Used to intercept the communications of individuals outside the UK. .

l Bulk Acquisition – Used to access communications data – the who, when and where of an e-mail or text message but not the content – in bulk.

l Bulk personal datasets – These comprise personal information relating to a number of people, the majority of whom are unlikely to be of intelligence interest.

l Bulk equipment interference – This includes hacking into suspects’ smartphones and computers.

Mr Anderson’s review found a “proven operational case” for the first three powers. On the fourth it said there is a “distinct, if not yet proven” operational case in relation to counter-terrorism and cyber defence.