Mass Surveillance is neither Intelligence nor intelligent

Last week reports surfaced that GCHQ – the UK signals intelligence agency – is developing the type of Internet spying capability Jacquie Smith had previously announced would not be built by the Home Office. It would be easy to infer a cynical deception by the government, however GCHQ issued a denial, stating that – unlike the Interception Modernisation Programme – their Mastering The Internet system will not monitor the population at large. Rather it will be targeted only at those suspected of posing a threat to UK interests.

On the face of it there is a discrepancy between the words of Jacquie Smith and the actions of GCHQ. However there’s a subtle yet important difference between their respective approaches: the word targeted. Surveillance is only effective when the ratio of “bad guys” to “good guys” is high. Using intelligence to target surveillance resources ensures the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio in a world where bad-guys are actually very rare. This means maximum return on investment and as few false positives as possible. Smith, on the other hand, wants to gather as much data as she can on everyone in the country just in case, you know, it might be useful at some point. Maybe. Clearly she’s never tried to find a needle in a haystack.

Investing in intelligence is a smart security measure. Having an effective intelligence system – from SIGINT down to well-trained police constables – works regardless of the threats ranged against your country and its population. If I sound like I’m parroting Bruce Schneier here, it’s because I am. Because he’s right.

I am in favour of professional spooks having the most sophisticated surveillance technology that money can buy – as long as a framework of safeguards exists to make sure it’s only used in reasonable and proportionate circumstances. I’m definitely not in favour of our currently-stretched resources being spent on adding more hay to the Home Office stack (which is already suspicously large).

We will probably never hear about the success or otherwise of Mastering The Internet. However if the Interception Modernisation Programme goes ahead I predict we’ll hear about its failures all the time.

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