Ex-MI6 chief calls for new ‘spy pact’ with internet firms

Britain's Ex-MI6 chief John Sawers (Reuters / Toby Melville)
Former head of MI6 Sir John Sawers, says intelligence agencies and tech companies need to begin data sharing in order to prevent terrorist attacks.

Sawers, who stepped down as the head of MI6 last November, said trust between spy agencies and internet companies needed to be rebuilt following the Snowden revelations.

In his first public address since standing down last year, Sawers believes such cooperation would help prevent attacks like those in Paris earlier this month. The ex-MI6 Chief, who will begin a new career in the private sector, said the internet could not have “no-go areas” which the government cannot access.

We cannot have no-go areas in our communities where the police cannot go, because that just allows space for the evil-doers to ply their trades,” Sawers said.

It is the same in the virtual world.If you allow areas which are completely impenetrable, then, OK, you might feel comfortable that your communications are private and no one else can see them, but so are those who are trying to do you down and undermine your society,” he said, adding that one of these “no-go areas” is our private communications, whether by email, twitter or Facebook.

Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) building (image from wikipedia.org)

Sawers revealed that the “broken” relationship between tech firms and governments has not been fixed since Edward Snowden revealed the true extent to which spy agencies are able to snoop on the public’s data.

Snowden threw a massive rock in the pool. The ripples from that have still not died down,” he said.

It was certainly a great concern for me that the, if you like, informal co-operation that worked well between most technology companies and communication companies and security services was broken by the Snowden revelations and has not been repaired.”

Technology companies such as Google and Yahoo came under intense criticism from customers as a result of Snowden’s whistleblowing and are keen to avoid a similar backlash in future.

Sawers believes that a new data sharing deal needs to be brokered with “limited compromise.”

He further called for a new contact “between the technology companies and those who are responsible for security if we are not to see events like we saw in Paris last week and which we have seen also across in Yemen, in Nigeria, and so on become more and more features of our lives.”

We cannot afford for that to happen,” he said.

READ MORE:‘Dangerous as terrorists’: Snowden leaks reveal GCHQ stores journalists’ data

Despite the impact of Snowden’s revelations on the government’s relationship with tech firms, Sawers recognized that the ensuing debate was beneficial.

Of course, there is a dilemma here because the general public and politicians and the technology companies, to some extent, they want us to be able to monitor the activities of terrorists and other evildoers but they do not want their own activities to be open to any such monitoring.

I think one benefit of the last 18 months’ debate is that people now understand that is simply not possible and there has to be some form of ability to cover communications that are made through modern technology.