​‘GCHQ doesn’t spy on everyone, we don’t have enough staff’ – intelligence officer

Reuters/Eddie Keogh
British spy agency GCHQ does not carry out “random mass intrusion” into law-abiding citizens’ lives because it does not have enough staff, a senior intelligence officer has claimed.

Cybersecurity chief Ciarian Martin said spies in the UK use their legal powers “extremely carefully.”

The intelligence officer added that the UK’s listening post, GCHQ, simply does not have enough staff to spy on everyone in the country.

Martin made the comments during a keynote speech at the Infosecurity Europe trade show in London on Tuesday.

READ MORE: ‘Spying on everyone’: Tories to introduce wider-than-expected surveillance powers

READ MORE: Snowden leaks aided terrorists, damaged spy agencies – neocon think-tank

READ MORE: Surveillance state must be subject to open critique – legal experts

GCHQ’s surveillance practices have come under scrutiny since NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed highly sophisticated programs of mass snooping employed by British and US intelligence agencies.

Martin told the audience in London: “Our role only really works because we have a world-class intelligence capability to draw on.

If we want to protect the UK from the darkest aspects of cyberspace, we have to be able to understand how it works.

That intelligence role has been the source of well-known controversy around privacy,” he added.

However he denied GCHQ engages in mass intrusion into the private lives of British citizens.

Everyone in GCHQ, everyone working there, is acutely conscious that we are entrusted with very significant powers under the law and we use those powers extremely carefully,” Martin said.

Referring to a report by Interceptions Commissioner Sir Anthony May, Martin said: “[May] asked the question does GCHQ engage in the random mass intrusion into the private lives of law-abiding citizens. The answer, and I quote, is emphatically no.”

The Director General for Cybersecurity explained the intelligence agency does have the resources to carry out mass surveillance of citizens.

One of the things that has been said almost flippantly in our defense is even if we wanted to do some of the things we've been accused of, we don't actually have enough people to engage in such unlawful mass intrusion,” he said.

Size naturally affects our role in UK cyber security. We are simply not big enough to put a big cyber security umbrella over the whole of the UK,” he added.

Martin dodged a question about the Investigatory Powers Bill, according to Computer Business Review.

The bill, which critics have dubbed a return of the “Snooper’s Charter,” will be introduced by the Conservative government in this parliament.

It is expected to require internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile operators to log much more data about what their customers do. Details could include who customers call, text, tweet and instant message.

While Martin declined to comment on the proposed legislation, he said it was up to Parliament to debate the bill.

Technology firm Eris Industries has temporarily left the UK, citing fears over increasing surveillance.

The company, which specializes in Blockchain infrastructure – the public ledger of Bitcoin transactions – claimed that handing more powers to British security agencies is “completely unnecessary.”