back to article GCHQ mass spying will 'cost lives in Britain,' warns ex-NSA tech chief

Plans by the UK's Conservative government to legitimize the mass surveillance of Brits won't work, and will cause lives to be lost to terrorism. That's the view of a former senior US National Security Agency (NSA) staffer, who will sound off on blanket snooping at a parliamentary hearing this afternoon (Wednesday). William …

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  1. Mark 85

    He's right... and fighting a losing battle.

    I applaud his bravery in the face of what has happened to him and will continue to happen. I'm also surprised that he hasn't been "disappeared" yet. Not only is he speaking out about what many rational people have said but he's doing it very publicly and getting the governments to at least listen to him. I'd like to think that those in in power would see the wisdom of his words but it's probably on the same level of wanting to see a unicorn also.

    Those that care about security, know he's right about targeting and massive slurping. Those not paying attention and thinking this through will cause the citizens to pay the price.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      Re: He's right... and fighting a losing battle.

      I'm also surprised that he hasn't been "disappeared" yet.

      Too conspicuous. & too late.

      Must nip these things in the bud:

      Need more data, sooner.

    2. james 68

      Re: He's right... and fighting a losing battle.

      Unfortunately there is a huge difference between the governments agreeing to be in the same room as him, and the governments actually listening to him.

      What is much more likely is that they will send some low level peons to be in the same room as him for 20 minutes so that they can later say "Hey, look at us, we listened to ALL the viable concerns before steamrolling in a new surveillance society."

    3. JohnMurray

      Re: He's right... and fighting a losing battle.

      You're assuming that the gov is even interested in "terrorists".

      Terror[ists] are hardly much of a risk to a government, worrying about an uprising by their own population is much more likely to be central to their endeavors.

      And you don't actually know they're indiscriminately slurping all data, you're just assuming it.

      Of course, governments never lie....

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: He's right... and fighting a losing battle.

        Terror[ists] are hardly much of a risk to a government,

        Very true, barring states already teetering on the edge of collapse.

        worrying about an uprising by their own population is much more likely to be central to their endeavors.

        Well, yes, for weaker governments. In the developed world, they're more likely to be worried about opportunities to make money, to make themselves look good to the uncritical majority of the populace, and to accrue power for its own sake.

        At some point, more surveillance becomes its own justification. I dare say we've already passed that point in the US and UK.

  2. Fraggle850

    Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

    What's the betting they'll ignore him? That seems to be the MO, just ask professor David Nutt.

    1. Thought About IT

      Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

      The power that mass surveillance gives to the spooks and select members of the government makes it highly unlikely that they will take any notice of any evidence of its ineffectiveness against terrorists.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        FTFY

        The power that mass surveillance gives to the spooks over select members of the government...

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

        The feeling of power

        FTFY

        If you actually read what he's saying the power to actually achieve anything is being lost because the analysts are burying themselves in crap.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

          If you want to find a needle in a hay stack, you don't send in a person to sift through the hay with their hands. You just move all the hay past a powerful electromagnet. So GCHQ builds their equivalent magnet for the digital needle, all the bad boys need to do is change to using carbon fibre needles.

          Maybe Bletchley Park in WW2 that used listening stations to intercept and record every piece of morse traffic that could be heard on RF is the example they are going by. But what GCHQ and politicians are seeking to legitimise is probably something that they have most been quietly doing anyway, so the real proof of the idea will be in what they've managed to find already. But they won't be able to tell anyone if they have.

          1. Roo
            Windows

            Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

            "But what GCHQ and politicians are seeking to legitimise is probably something that they have most been quietly doing anyway, so the real proof of the idea will be in what they've managed to find already."

            Yup...

            "But they won't be able to tell anyone if they have."

            So they say - but in practice there is absolutely nothing but their own hidden motives stopping them from telling folks what they're up to. Essentially the spooks & celebutard politicians are saying "We need mass surveillance, but we can't have any oversight or take any action on the data we gather because it'll tip people off to what we're up to.", which begs the question "If they can't use the data for their stated purposes, why are they collecting it in the first place ?".

            Experience has taught me that when people are not presenting a rational case, they don't have a rational case. The reason why they don't have a rational case is that they are either stupid, or hiding something. In this particular case it's clear the intent is to hide their activity and their motives because quite clearly their actions aren't matching up with their stated intent at the moment.

          2. channel extended

            Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

            I would rather set the haystack on fire. After it burns down the needle is simple to find.

            This means collect everything and after the attack find your needle in the data. Save lives, no. Ruin lives and reputations through data leaks, yes. Face it if they knew what they were doing they never would have been put in charge

            1. Mark 85

              Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

              I think a better analogy than a needle in a haystack is a chunk of chocolate in a septic tank (or treatment plant). Too many folks would think the solution is a bigger magnet. The reality is the good info is indistinguishable from the noise unless you sample every bit.

          3. Graham Marsden

            @werdsmith - Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

            > If you want to find a needle in a hay stack, you don't send in a person to sift through the hay with their hands. You just move all the hay past a powerful electromagnet.

            But that assumes that a) there *is* a needle in the haystack and b) you don't have *so many* haystacks that you can actually search all of them.

            There's also the small matter of the several attacks over recent years which have been by people who have been known to the Intelligence Services, yet have still been able to perpetrate their attacks...

          4. Munzly The Hermit

            Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

            It is well known that governments always prepare for the previous war, so are always unprepared for the next.

        2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

          The feeling of power

          FTFY

          If you actually read what he's saying the power to actually achieve anything is being lost because the analysts are burying themselves in crap.

          It's a different sort of power.

          Surveillance will continue to bring the privileged the power to be voyeurs, the power to spy on their opponents, and so forth. Mass surveillance is largely a cover for that, and an excuse for playing around with lots of resources (and a way to hide even less savory activities in those giant budgets, of course).

          Beyond that, more surveillance is a kind of Baudrillardian good for the spooks: it doesn't matter whether they're getting real insights or just some simulacrum, because their reward is the sensation of knowledge, not knowledge itself. It assuages the omnipresent dread felt by intelligence organizations in an era of information overproduction, the awareness that it's impossible to keep up. They're institutionally addicted to surveillance.

      3. Arctic fox
        WTF?

        @ Thought About IT "The power that mass surveillance gives to the spooks"

        I believe that the point that the gentleman is making (if I have not misunderstood what he has said) is that it does not, in practice, give them the power that they dream of. In other words indiscriminate mass surveilence does not in fact achieve what they believe it will achieve. IE. They are destroying the temple instead of saving it. What he is saying is that their strategy is stupid and counterproductive. Icon? My reaction to that they, in reality, appear to be intent on demonstrating that it is an almost biblical truth.

      4. Marshalltown

        Re: The power that mass surveillance gives...

        Yet, you have to wonder, just what power that would be. It seems far more likely to result in raised taxes and maybe open a few more government jobs than anything else. Governments consistently tend to regard their own citizens as the biggest threats. The citizenry of course is what the government is exercising power over, the only serious source of funding (and affirmation of status - after all, what goes through a taxman's heart at the end of the day, if he hasn't made someone's life at least a bit more miserable).

        1. Munzly The Hermit

          Re: The power that mass surveillance gives...

          What happened to the concept that the government were the servants of the people? They are there to protect not repress!

    2. Dr Dan Holdsworth
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

      To be perfectly honest, I don't think the spooks themselves want this mass surveillance either. From their perspective, this is also a lose-lose prospect.

      Look at this from the spooks' point of view for a while. They get their mass surveillance law, and within days they get the power and ability to round up trolls, loud-mouthed blowhards, keyboard warriors and assorted noisy plonkers by the dozen (and one look at any unmoderated forum will show up these sorts of people by the thousand). The problem here is that loud trolling isn't actually much of a crime, save against the rules of grammar and politeness. People are rarely physically harmed by words on an internet forum.

      Even deluded Walter Mitty types rarely do all that much harm. The likes of the Baron of Castleshortt are harmless nitwits, who provide military forums with much amusement debunking their exaggerated claims, but who are not actually anyone's problem.

      Actual terrorists, on the other hand, tend not to make a great deal of noise. They especially won't make much noise after Mr Rehman and his wife both got life sentences for terrorism-related offences, having shot their mouths off on Twitter.

      No, what is a lot more likely to happen is that the security services will get swamped with data, fail to spot several serious plots which either go to fruition or are picked up on by the police and stopped, and then the heads of the security services will be forced to resign for incompetence. A few times round the block on that one, and the security services will end up with mass surveillance data that they either don't use, or pay only the most cursory attention to unless a target is clear. In other words, the government legislates to piss a huge amount of money up the wall before tacitly admitting that it was all a waste of time and the old tried & trusted security methods were a lot more useful.

      1. Wommit

        Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

        @Dr. Dan

        Didn't you know that the tinterwebbies are a vast and dangerous place? Just ask Melody, poor soul, she's received PTSD from twitter. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2605888/Woman-claims-PTSD-Twitter-cyberstalking-says-bit-war-veterans.html

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

          @wommit

          "Didn't you know that the tinterwebbies are a vast and dangerous place? Just ask Melody, poor soul, she's received PTSD from twitter. "

          PTSD?

          If she had received an STD from Twitter I would be more impressed.

      2. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

        To be perfectly honest, I don't think the spooks themselves want this mass surveillance either. From their perspective, this is also a lose-lose prospect.

        This can be confirmed in the way the IPB has been framed, namely, the government want "communication records" retained for a period of time by the communication service providers (CSPs) so that if the spooks and other agencies decide someone is of interest they can go and take look at what they've been doing over the last few months.

        We see this in the way CCTV is used: the output from all camera's is recorded and held for a month or so by the operators, if during this time the police want to investigate an incident they can go and browse through the recordings. Obviously, as we've seen with ANPR, if you consolidate the records from individual cameras into a central database (for whatever reason) then people will want to make use of the opportunities such a repository presents.

        However, whilst there are things in the IPB that are concerning for various reasons, we do need to watch out for omissions and/or lack of detail and precision because these will be filled in later through the use of Statutory Instruments, which get practically zero Parliamentary scrutiny.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Gosh, a voice of reason speaking to our government!

      Of course he'll be ignored.

      To do anything else would require a government minister, SPAD or senior civil servant (sorry can't remember who uttered the nonsense) to admit their initial uninformed and stupid assessment of the proposal was wrong.

      I've never known a government that would rather admit it is wrong than just ploughing on no matter the damage that will be done.

      The pointing out of mistakes is for the next government not the current one.

  3. hplasm
    Big Brother

    Looking for Terrorists?

    Check your Government.

    1. The Dude
      Mushroom

      Re: Looking for Terrorists?

      Terrorism: An ideology positing that the optimum method of governing any population is to frighten and terrorize the population into submission and obedience.

      Sound like anyone you know?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another motivation?

    Mass data collection has nothing to do with crime detection. But it serves the purposes of economic espionage perfectly.

    Economic espionage, and the elite few who are granted access to the product of that espionage for self-enrichment, is the root cause of the modern mass surveillance problem.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It never was about terrorists, it was always about control of the proles and to locate any of them that dare to have independent thought. Spy on them and keep them happy with pornography and alcohol.

    Oppression is freedom.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Childcatcher

      ...keep them blissfully pacified and subjugated with invariably illegal "extreme" pornography and alcohol.

      Sober up long enough to have a badthink and the thought police will duly be smashing their way into your home to seize your electronics and uncover the shocking proof of your naughty nature. You'll be quietly and efficiently pariahed into oblivion before you can even say fascism. You scumbag. People like you make me sick.

      http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Solicitor-astonished-client-s-porn-charges/story-13281946-detail/story.html

      http://mylesjackman.com/index.php/my-blog/93-blog-1

      etc... etc...

    2. Chris King

      "Spy on them and keep them happy with pornography and alcohol."

      Except they're looking to filter porn, and they're about to tell us to cut back on the falling-down juice too.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Big Brother

        >Except they're looking to filter porn...

        Oh dear! Shirley you've realised the "porn" filters are just a ruse to get the infrastructure and acceptance in place before your benevolent political masters slowly begin "protecting" you from other dangerous types of dangerous thoughtcrime?

  6. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    So that's what it takes to get a senior ex spook to tell the truth.

    Take their security clearance and kill their consultancy business.

    Useful to know.

    I rather doubt we'd be hearing from him if this didn't happen first though.

    As for lawyers...

    No lawyer wants to learn about technology. It would hinder their ability to spout such utter bu***hit with a straight face.

    1. SolidSquid

      Re: So that's what it takes to get a senior ex spook to tell the truth.

      It's not an ethics violation if you repeat lies someone told to you, only if you lie yourself. Carefully crafted ignorance can be a very valuable asset for a lawyer in the right fields

  7. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    The man is absolutely right!

    As I tell my students over and over again: adding hay doesn't make finding needles any easier. Getting a big magnet by contrast, does. We can only hope the powers that be listen, but I am not holding my breath.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The man is absolutely right!

      Burn all the hay, sweep the ash with a giant magnet. Not sure what that analogy translates to in the real world.

      1. SolidSquid

        Re: The man is absolutely right!

        Better data parsing to make extracting the important information easier basically. Which is something they still haven't managed to with the *existing* data loads, so I don't know how they expect to manage it with larger ones

      2. Kernel

        Re: The man is absolutely right!

        "Burn all the hay, sweep the ash with a giant magnet. Not sure what that analogy translates to in the real world."

        I am not a metallurgist, but I suspect that a needle is one of those tools that once exposed to a haystack sized fire is no longer particularly fit for purpose.

        A bit like the current level of spook agency performance with regard to terror attacks really, so it is quite an appropriate analogy in this case.

    2. Blofeld's Cat
      Black Helicopters

      Re: The man is absolutely right!

      " ... adding hay doesn't make finding needles any easier ... "

      Presumably they work on the principle that they will scoop up a few more needles with the vast extra quantity of hay. That way they can claim they are doing something when they stumble across a needle.

      I suspect that the needle to hay ratio remains diminishing small, no matter how much hay you collect.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The man is absolutely right!

      Scan more haystacks, find other needles.

      1. Charles 9

        Re: The man is absolutely right!

        Plus the needles are nonferrous with low melting points, so you can't use magnets or fire.

        1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

          Re: The man is absolutely right!

          Given the increasing public disquiet at mass snooping, it won't be long before the needles are indistinguishable from the straw. That, surely, is the worst aspect of this policy direction -- it creates far more dissent and mistrust than it uncovers.

    4. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: The man is absolutely right!

      While he is right about the approach proposed in the bill, his alternative is something which is available to superpowers only.

      Only USA, China, Russia and Japan have native access to social network and search data. To be more exact: F***book, LinkedIn, Tw*tter, picture sharing and dating sites for USA (as well as the zombie corpses of bygones), Baidu + Ali Baba for China and VK + Yandex for Russia. Japan while not a superpower has had the data for most usual suspects locally for a number of historic reasons.

      Smaller countries have no access to such data and can only infer social network relationships out of traffic flow metadata.

      So, in fact, if UK is to follow his advice to the letter it has to collect all traffic metadata (not the data, it is irrelevant), run it through a number cruncher the size of the one used by NSA and infer and reconstruct these relationships. Note - I am not advocating this, I am simply analyzing what does it take to implement his proposals.

      The other alternative is to do a Russian and force data location in-country which is not feasible as long as UK remains in the Eu. Then you can apply his suggested approach "as is". Though that is least likely to work if the suspects will use an off-shore network which could not care less about the local law.

      So while his arguments make sense, they will end up being shot down in the hearings. You need to come up with better arguments which besides technical reasoning also rely on law and fundamental rights (not that we have those in the UK anyway - parliament is sovereign and shall not be bound).

      1. Otto is a bear.

        Re: The man is absolutely right!

        If you need to find a needle in a haystack, you need to look, no matter how big the haystack is, or how many needles and haystacks there are. Not looking won't find the needle.

        I doubt the public at large would accept the excuse "It's just too big, so we didn't bother" when things go wrong.

        You can never find all the needles, and will always miss some, and there will always be consequences when you miss one. If you fail to look, then the consequences will be much greater. The risk of being caught will deter some, and if there is no risk of being caught, well.......

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          Be Careful What you Wish For when Anything is Possible, and Eminently Probable Imminently

          The risk of being caught will deter some, and if there is no risk of being caught, well....... ... Otto is a bear

          Well, Otto ....... ideally all being blissful is a Pleasant ComputedD State/Place/Secured IntelAIgent Space would be quite perfect enough to be strangely engaging ..... and something of a virtualised bear marketing space, too, Amigo.

    5. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: The man is absolutely right!

      To stretch this already pretty broken metaphor a bit further, with more hay, you're going to increase the number of false needles (false positives) that you pick up with your magnet. Perhaps we could say they were bits of metal that were already on the floor of the barn, or that fell of the hay collecting machinery. Either way, they're not the needle you're looking for, but you still have to spend as much time removing them from the big magnet as if they were.

      1. Charles 9

        Re: The man is absolutely right!

        But at the same time, to stretch the metaphor, even further, there are highly explosive needles in with the bunch, and if one of them slips through and then blows up, there's going to be an ungodly amount of finger-pointing straight at you for not spotting it in time, even though there's really no practical way to separate them out before they go off, so The State is kinda tasked with a nigh-impossible task by the people, yet when (not if) things go boom, they get the blame regardless.

        1. Danny 2

          Re: The man is absolutely right!

          I did once try to look for needles in a field after something went boom.

          When the Lockerbie disaster happened the police warned people away from just one section of countryside because the flight was seemingly carrying a cargo of needles, the warning being that people could accidentally stand on them and hurt themselves (no mention of the still flaming wreckage). Needles are a low-value item never normally transported by air, and there was some suggestions by relatively sane people that they were "flechettes" and part of awful munitions that were being secretly transported and may have caused the explosion.

          One easy way to test this theory would be to find either a needle or a flechette in the fields using a metal detector, so I consulted with a 'detectorist' I chanced upon on scanning a beach, and tried to gain access to the area. I was unsuccessful, partly I think due to state action.

          On a differing related subject, I was aware that Depleted Uranium was regularly used as ballast on many large aircraft, so when 911 occurred I phoned the airlines to ask if it had been present on the New York flights, as this would have a serious impact on the residents and first responders health. I got no reply but a swift visit from a lost american tourist, in a town where no american tourists had been lost before or since. And now the NY first responders are all dying of cancer while their medical support is a political football as highlighted by Jon Stewart.

  8. frank ly

    Straws in the wind

    "A few months later Binney was arrested at gunpoint by the FBI while in the shower, and other NSA staff who had raised similar questions were also collared by the Feds."

    Punishment arrests. This shows how it will go in the UK as things 'progress'. (Should I be posting as AC via a Tor browser?)

    1. Teiwaz

      Re: Straws in the wind

      ""A few months later Binney was arrested at gunpoint by the FBI while in the shower, and other NSA staff who had raised similar questions were also collared by the Feds.""

      Clearly a form of Terrorism. I know in the US, arrests often have to happen at gunpoint because of the 2nd amendment, but in the shower? (Do they have waterproof guns?, gun dish next to the soap dish?)

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Straws in the wind

        Was he disabled at the time? If so, it adds even more class to the proceedings.

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