MI5 chief backs new powers for spy agencies

Andrew Parker the head of M15 © UK Parliament via REUTERS TV
MI5 chief Andrew Parker has called for more surveillance powers for Britain’s security agencies in order to combat the growing terrorism threat, noting the need to outpace militants’ growing tech acumen.

Parker warned that the terrorists’ use of technology poses new challenges for intelligence agencies and that the “terrorism threat is the most serious threat that Britain faces in security terms.”

He told BBC Radio on Thursday that the internet has “changed the shape” of the threat.

In August 2014, the UK raised its terrorism threat level to “severe,” the second-highest stage on the scale. Parker explained this means attacks are considered “highly likely.” The bump was caused by the growing influence of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and the surging number of Britons traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the radical organization.

Parker claimed security agencies foiled six terrorists’ plots over the course of the last year alone.

“It represents a threat which is continuing to grow, largely because of the situation in Syria and how that affects our security,” he said.

Despite pushback from human rights and privacy groups about the breath of government bulk data collection, the UK has been seeking to increase surveillance in order to fight terrorism. In the coming months, the government is expected to introduce the ‘snooper’s charter’, a bill mandating cooperation between telecommunications companies and the government.

On Tuesday British Home Secretary Theresa May met with US and British telecommunications companies to seek their support for the new surveillance bill. The legislation would require internet and phone companies to collect and retain the browsing histories, phone call and text message histories of their clients and force them to hand over the data if requested by security agencies. A draft bill is expected to be published in October.

Parker came out in support of such a bill, saying “if we’re to find and stop the people who mean us harm, MI5 and others need to be able to navigate the internet to find terrorist communication.”

He also said companies have an “ethical responsibility” to work with security agencies in stopping terrorism. However, he stressed it was parliament’s responsibility to ultimately make the decision.

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“It is completely for ministers to propose, and parliament to decide. It’s a fundamental point about what MI5 is. It’s for us to follow what’s set by parliament, and that’s what we do,” he said.

The BBC radio interview was the first live media interview with a sitting British intelligence chief.