In a wide/ranging interview with the Guardian intended to garner support for greater government surveillance of the Internet, UK National Crime Agency boss, Keith Bristow detailed how under-surveillance was threatening the safety of the UK and its citizens. Hidden beneath this argument is the undercurrent of opinion that overzealous, mass gathering of individual’s data has poisoned the atmosphere of increased government spying of any kind.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) has been called Britain’s version of America’s FBI, and was established in response to grave and organized crime. It replaced the Serious and Organized Crime Agency which was beset by problems from its birth. It presumably has acted more competently as there have been frequent calls to grant it greater powers against terrorism.
The NCA, tasked to fight cybercrime, was born in October 2013 and headed by Bristow. Coming from a small constabulary in Warwickshire, he was a surprise choice for the job according to reliable sources. The UK government is considering transferring the lead in the counter-terrorism fight from the Met to the NCA. It is Bristow’s belief that such a move would invigorate the campaign against serious crime and terrorism.
Needless to say, Scotland Yard is resisting the move. Bristow is not opposed to power sharing in that regard, saying “that the tactics of law enforcement to tackle these people are often the same.” Bristow currently enjoys much seniority as head of the NCA. He has the power by statute to direct the activities of other police chiefs, including Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner.
Bristow believes that law enforcement is not keeping up with the use of technology by criminals in the digital age. But he warned that it would be wrong to grant greater powers to access email and phone call data without public agreement. To some this appears to be an acknowledgement of government overstepping its authority in the mif police to keep upoass surveillance debacle disclosed by Edward Snowden.
In the post-Snowden-revelations age he is unlikely to get much sympathy from the public or traction for what he proposes. This is especially true because he estimates that Britons would have to accept a greater loss of digital freedoms in return for, what he claims will be, greater safety from serious criminals and terrorists who utilize the Internet to ply their nefarious trade. The director general, in acknowledging that public support for his proposal is essential, accepted that he had not made an effective case for why the greater surveillance powers were necessary. He hoped to rectify that in this interview.
To make his case Bristow highlighted what he considered to be some key events which made a compelling case for more surveillance. They include:
- The increased activity of paedophiles and human traffickers operating in a digital world demanded a commensurate response from law enforcement
- A series of scandals such as allegations of corruption in the handling of the Stephen Lawrence case
- Advantages to be gained if Scotland Yard was stripped of its leadership role in the terrorism fight
- It would allow for better addressing the growing heroin problem plaguing Britain’s streets as a result of the American pull-out from Afghanistan
With regard to the last point, Bristow said NCA experts were predicting a spike in heroin heading to the UK from Afghanistan. Heroin from Afghanistan accounts for 90% of the class A drug on Britain’s streets. The NCA is also predicting that the availability as well as the purity may increase.
Some of Bristow’s views have support among the privacy community, but many fear the end result. Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, admitted that while it is good to address the surveillance issue, the authorities past history of making their own rules and decisions and use of draconian overreach of powers, makes the public wary about such an appeal for greater surveillance powers. He said:
“Open Rights Group welcomes any public debate about the surveillance of our personal communications by the police and intelligence services, but so far the government seems intent on simply increasing its power to allow unchecked whole population profiling. To tackle terrorism and serious crime, we need targeted surveillance that is authorized by judges not politicians, as well as proper demographic oversight to ensure that powers are not abused.”
In the same breath Bristow seemed to warn that just about anyone who had done a misdeed were probably surveilled. Loz Kaye, the leader of the UK Pirate Party, told the Inquirer that Bristow’s comments foreshadowed less freedom.
“This is a significant admission by Keith Bristow. He recognizes that the ever encroaching mass surveillance state is an erosion of our freedoms, and that the authorities have failed to bring the public along. From the Snowden revelations we know that the state has huge capabilities to monitor all our communications and that they just gather vast amounts of data. What’s lagging behind is the politicians’ ability to sell this attack on our liberty to the British people.”
Loz believes, and many concur, that too much internal inspection puts the UK at risk of falling behind in dealing with outside threats. These threats, by the way, have continued to proliferate from around the world even after mass data grabs by spy agencies in such programs such as Prism, Tempura and the like. “The mistake has been to focus on spying on us all, rather than analysing the real threats,” he said.
So, the battle is joined and the sides are arraying against each other. Proponents of individual liberties, with abuses of government surveillance fresh in their minds, are reluctant to cede more authority to law enforcement. It is probable that Director General Bristow will have to earn the right to have increased surveillance capabilities.