United Kingdom

British Spy Chiefs Appear Before MPs, Sound Like American Counterparts

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Credit: Ministry of Defence/wikimedia

Today the heads of British security agencies MI5, MI6, and GCHQ were questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee, something that usually occurs in private.

During the hearing MI5 Director General Andrew Parker claimed that 34 terrorist plots have been disrupted since the 2005 bombings in London, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers said that "our adversaries were rubbing their hands with glee," and GCHQ Director Sir Iain Lobban told the committee that "We don't want to delve into innocent emails and phone calls," and that some people being monitored have discussed different ways to communicate since Snowden's leaks.

Of course, similar sorts of justifications and complaints relating to surveillance have been heard before on this side of the Atlantic. NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander claimed that surveillance programs have prevented "dozens" of terrorist attacks. President Obama said that "at least fifty" plots had been averted thanks to surveillance, a claim that is backed up with little evidence.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R.Ga.) have claimed that terrorists have been changing their behavior since the leaks, a claim not unlike the one made by Lobban.

The hearing in the U.K. comes in the wake of a number of controversies surrounding the British intelligence community that have emerged since the publication of Edward Snowden's revelations.

Earlier this week the British ambassador in Berlin was summoned by the German foreign ministry after reporting, based in part on Snowden's revelations, emerged alleging that the British had been using its embassy to spy on the German government.

Snowden's leaked information also revealed information on the Tempora program run by GCHQ, which allows the agency to access personal data online, as explained by Philip Bump at The Atlantic:

Working closely with America's National Security Agency, the GCHQ is about halfway done implementing "Project Tempora." Comprised of two parts, suggestively dubbed "Mastering the Internet" and "Global Telecoms Exploitation," the project aims to eventually allow the agency (and its partner) to survey over 90 percent of the cables that route through the United Kingdom, pulling data from 400 at once. "As of last year," the Guardian reports, "the agency had gone half way, attaching probes to 200 fibre-optic cables each with a capacity of 10 gigabits per second. In theory, that gave GCHQ access to a flow of 21.6 petabytes in a day, equivalent to 192 times the British Library's entire book collection." Full content of transmissions is preserved for three days andmetadata for 30. Between them, the GCHQ and NSA have 550 analysts poring over the data — and 850,000 people with top secret clearance can access it. We've known for weeks that the NSA shares its PRISM data with the UK; now we know it also goes in reverse.

Read more from Reason.com on the NSA and Edward Snowden here and here