Intelligence agencies in the UK are preparing to “significantly increase their use of large-scale data hacking,” the Guardian reported on Saturday, in a move that is already alarming privacy advocates.
According to the Guardian, UK intelligence officials plan to increase their use of the “bulk equipment interference (EI) regime”—the process by which the Government Communications Headquarters, the UK’s top signals intelligence and cybersecurity agency, collects bulk data off foreign communications networks—because they say targeted collection is no longer enough. The paper wrote:
A letter from the security minister, Ben Wallace, to the head of the intelligence and security committee, Dominic Grieve, quietly filed in the House of Commons library last week, states: “Following a review of current operational and technical realities, GCHQ have … determined that it will be necessary to conduct a higher proportion of ongoing overseas focused operational activity using the bulk EI regime than was originally envisaged.”
The paper noted that during the passage of the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act, which expanded hacking powers available to police and intelligence services including bulk data collection for the latter, independent terrorism legislation reviewer Lord David Anderson asserted that bulk powers are “likely to be only sparingly used.” As the Guardian noted, just two years later, UK intelligence officials are claiming this is no longer the case due to growing use of encryption:
… The intelligence services claim that the widespread use of encryption means that targeted hacking exercises are no longer effective and so more large-scale hacks are becoming necessary. Anderson’s review noted that the top 40 online activities relevant to MI5’s intelligence operations are now encrypted.
“The bulk equipment interference power permits the UK intelligence services to hack at scale by allowing a single warrant to cover entire classes of property, persons or conduct,” Scarlet Kim, a legal officer at UK civil liberties group Liberty International, told the paper. “It also gives nearly unfettered powers to the intelligence services to decide who and when to hack.”
Liberty also took issue with the intelligence agencies’ 180 on how often the bulk powers would be used, as well as with policies that only allow the investigatory powers commissioner to gauge the impact of a warrant after the hacking is over and done with.
“The fact that you have the review only after the privacy has been infringed upon demonstrates how worrying this situation is,”