Thursday, October 29, 2015
Terror threat to UK is greater than any point in career, says MI5 chief
Director general Andrew Parker said increasing amount of work is linked to Isis and Syria. Photograph: MI5/PA
The director general of MI5 has used a keynote speech in London, one week before the anticipated publication of a bill setting out a wide range of surveillance powers, to insist that the terrorist threat faced by the UK is greater than at any time in his career.
In the latest public intervention by the intelligence services before a debate among MPs about the government’s investigatory powers bill, Andrew Parker said his service would be unable to keep Britain safe without the use of tools to intercept communications data, which he said were subject to “strict safeguards”.
Referring to the bill, he said: “We do not seek sweeping new intrusive powers in that legislation, but rather a modern legal framework that reflects the way that technology has moved on, and that allows us to continue to keep the country safe.”
Giving a lecture entitled A Modern MI5 at a lord mayor’s event in the City of London, Parker said MI5 and those it worked with had thwarted six attempts at terrorist attacks in the UK in the last year, and several plots overseas.
“It may not yet have reached the high water mark, and despite the successes we have had, we can never be confident of stopping everything,” he added.
He spoke of a “three-dimensional threat” – at home, overseas and online – with an increasing proportion of the agency’s casework linked to Syria and Islamic State.
He said: “We are seeing plots against the UK directed by terrorists in Syria; enabled through contacts with terrorists in Syria; and inspired online by Isil’s [Islamic State’s] sophisticated exploitation of technology.
“It uses the full range of modern communications tools to spread its message of hate, and to inspire extremists, sometimes as young as their teens, to conduct attacks in whatever way they can.”
The speed at which radicalisation can occur online, and the emphasis on low-sophistication but potentially deadly plots are two major challenges posed by Isis, he said, while a greater ambition for “mass casualty” attacks has been observed in the last year.
Parker sought to underline the importance of communications interception, but claimed that an increasing proportion of communications were now beyond the reach of the intelligence service – in particular with the growing prevalence of sophisticated encryption.
The MI5 head also moved to keep up the pressure on companies such as Facebook, Google and others after he used an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last month to insist that they had an “ethical” responsibility to provide more help in monitoring the communications data of suspected terrorist.
In his latest comments, he said: “Those providers rightly want to maintain the privacy and security of their customers’ data – but they also have an obligation, and I would argue an ethical responsibility, to work with law enforcement and other agencies to prevent their services being used for the purposes of serious crime and terrorism.”
Parker said that he imagined that the debates on the forthcoming legislation would attract “rather wider interest” than previous parliamentary debates about legislation governing the security services.
He added: “But I hope that the public debate will be a mature one, informed by the three independent reviews, and not characterised by ill-informed accusations of ‘mass surveillance’, or other such lazy two-worded tags.”