Earlier today, MI5 director general Andrew Parker gave the first live interview by a serving head of the Security Service in the organisation’s 106-year history. Parker was interviewed at length on BBC Radio 4 and talked about the work of MI5 in keeping the nation safe, addressed some misconceptions about the organisation and outlined several of the key security challenges ahead.
In the coming months, Parliament will consider a new Bill to overhaul the existing laws that give intelligence agencies like MI5 their powers to protect national security. Now, ahead of those Parliamentary debates, MI5’s director general has spoken publicly in order to set some context around the threat posed by Syria and Iraq-related terrorism.
“MI5 exists to keep the country safe,” asserted Parker. “There should be no more of MI5 – with no more powers – than is necessary to do that. Today, though, we are being stretched by a growing threat from terrorism, and from Syria in particular, combined with the constant challenge of technological change. These days, the way we work has changed as that technology has advanced. Our success depends on ourselves and our partner agencies having sufficiently up-to-date capabilities used within a clear framework of law against those who threaten this country.”
Parker continued: “Accordingly, I welcome Government’s intent to update the legal framework and to make our powers more transparent. Making sure that our laws are up-to-date in this area can only be a good process in a free and democratic country – the very thing that MI5 exists to protect. We need to be able to operate in secret if we’re to succeed against those who mean the UK harm, but it’s fair to suggest the capabilities we use can be described more fully in law.”
Further, the Security Service’s leader outlined: “We take our legal and ethical duty to use these powers proportionately on an extremely serious level. We never use them for the sake of it and do not trawl at will through people’s private lives.”
Parker paid tribute to the “exceptional dedication, professionalism and sacrifices” made by the men and women of MI5, those in communities who help the Security Service to save lives and also colleagues at GCHQ, in the SIS and the police service.
Syria and the terrorism threat
The UK is facing an unprecedented level of threat at present, with Syria and Iraq increasingly at the forefront of MI5’s work.
Together with its partners the SIS, GCHQ and the police service, Parker revealed that MI5 has thwarted six attempts to carry out an attack in the last 12 months alone, while intelligence has disrupted a further nine attack plots overseas during that same timeframe.
In addition to plots directed, enabled or supported by terrorists in Syria, MI5 is facing what Parker described as “a real challenge” in trying to thwart the actions of those inspired by ISIL ideology via the Internet. In the course of its investigations, MI5 has seen individuals radicalised to the point of violence “within weeks”.
Parker stated: “MI5’s ability to spot this small number of individuals such that it can intervene in time is increasingly difficult in the online world. Once they’ve been identified, gaining access to what they’re planning is far more difficult than in the past.”
He continued: “Technology is bringing great benefits to society and making our lives easier. Now that so much of people’s lives is conducted online, MI5 needs the tools to be able to follow terrorists in cyber space every bit as much as when they’re walking down the street.”
Parker went on to state: “MI5 uses its powers for the good of the country and to keep people safe. Its staff must scrupulously observe both the law and the many safeguards put in place while they do their job and act to the highest of ethical standards.”
Independent reviews of all the powers of UK intelligence agencies by the Intelligence and Security Committee and David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, agree that MI5 needs those tools that can counter threats in a ‘borderless’ digital world. They are demonstrably clear that MI5 must always operate within the law but argue that greater transparency is needed.
Importance of data in MI5’s work
Checking through large amounts of data is very often the only – and most crucial – means MI5 has at its disposal when it comes to tracking down terrorists plotting to cause harm in the UK.
Communications data – ie the detail of who’s calling whom and when – is used in all MI5 investigations and, combined with other types of data (travel data, for example) has provided the organisation with crucial leads and, indeed, saved lives both in this country and abroad.
“Analysing communications data was crucial in identifying a group of seven individuals in the final stages of their plans to blow up the London Stock Exchange and other symbolic locations back in 2010,” urged Parker.
“MI5 was able to quickly identify links between the individuals involved which would otherwise have been extremely difficult to work out. Combined with other data, MI5 tracked the movements of the group and worked diligently with the police service in order to disrupt the whole network before the attack was carried out.”