Alexa van Sickle


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Surveillance and ambiguity

IISS Voices  Date: 21 January 2014

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

Nigel Inkster, IISS Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on 14 January during an evidence session on counter-terrorism, and shared insights on the implications of the Edward Snowden leaks. 

Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North, asked Inkster if he disagreed with suggestions that Edward Snowden leaks were harmful. Inkster said he did not disagree, and that they were ‘very detrimental’ to security and had done serious damage.

‘The most important thing to say about that is as the scope of the leakages has become evident, the damage is all the greater … and more serious than I, at least, was inclined to infer,’ he said.

Inkster explained it was important to remember that ‘the capabilities that Snowden has been making public have been developed in relatively recent times, and reflect the rapid developments in the world of information and communication technologies (ICT) … these rapid developments have not occurred at the behest of or on behalf of the intelligence services in the Western world; they have had to keep pace with this explosive growth as best they can.’

This has been a real challenge, he explained, but one that intelligence services have met remarkably well. 

The real value of the capabilities that have emerged over the last five or six years, he said, is that they provide a wide range of coverage of communications options, which has created an ambiguity in the minds of ‘potential malefactors’ about which channels of communication were being monitored and which were not. 

‘That ambiguity, that uncertainty, has been very significantly eroded, and I think serious malefactors now have a much better idea of which communications they should not be using.’

He also felt there should be a distinction between operatives at the ‘low end of the spectrum’ who are likely to be caught regardless, versus the ones we should be worrying about – who are sophisticated, extremely calculating and aware of ICT capabilities.

Inkster said claims that the surveillance programmes amount to a ‘surveillance state’ are misleading and unrealistic, and that such characterisations reflect a fundamental ‘misunderstanding of the nature of Big Data’. He explained that the sheer amount of data enables intelligence services to ‘identify patterns of correlation which are simply not obvious with lesser quantities of data’. He explained that the reason European intelligence services shared their data with the NSA was that the NSA could, by aggregating this data with other data, make more sensible use of it than could be done with less information. 

‘The aim of the NSA and GCHQ programmes is not to be able to spy on everybody … they are putting through sophisticated computer programmes, huge quantities of data, with the computer being tasked to look for very, very narrow issues on which it’s been programmed to register.’

If the agencies want to look into further detail, he said, they must seek a separate warrant.

The session also discussed oversight of the programmes and intelligence agencies. Inkster observed that to some extent there is always likely to be tension regarding oversight arrangements in relation to intelligence. 

‘By definition, there are certain aspects of this activity that simply cannot be made public … people are always going to want more from the oversight arrangements than those arrangements are likely to give.’ 

He also pointed out that democratic oversight of the intelligence services in the United Kingdom was a relatively recent phenomenon – dating from 1994 – and that it was the intelligence services who had requested it. ‘The nature of this oversight has evolved over time, and has changed quite significantly … I expect this process to continue evolving.’

Nigel Inkster explores the reactions to the NSA leaks in his commentary ‘Snowden: Myths and Misapprehensions’ in the forthcoming issue of Survival.

Watch the session.