I've sent a submission to the Intelligence and Security Committee's Inquiry into Privacy and Security
. It was done in a hurry so hopefully is not too incoherent.
To the members of the Committee,
Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to your
inquiry into privacy and security.
My name is Ray Corrigan. I’m a Senior Lecturer in the Maths,
Computing & Technology Faculty of The Open University though I write to you
in a personal capacity.
Privacy and security are not opposites but mutually
dependent. It is essential the committee understand that the false privacy v
security dichotomy that so often frames public debate seriously undermines
policymakers’ and the public’s understanding of the issues at hand. The single
most important airline security measure put in place following the terrible
attacks on September 11th 2001 was the reinforcement of cockpit
doors. That had absolutely no impact on the personal privacy of travellers. The
hugely expensive naked scanners installed at airports, however, take a terrible
toll on personal privacy whilst being functionally worse than useless as a
security measure (and the X-ray variety has been shown to pose a risk to
health). A door lock or a strong high fence provides security without
Massive data collection and mining compromise privacy and
security. The NSA gave 850,000 people access to classified materials as a routine
part of their jobs. Their systems are big and complex and require a lot of
staff to operate but there can be no security when that number of people has
access to secrets.
There is no “balance” to be achieved between the “individual
right to privacy and the collective right to security”. The collective right to
security requires an individual and collective right to privacy. The value of
protecting individual and collective privacy is that those rights make a
fundamental contribution to the overall health of society. Framing privacy as
the opposite of security assumes privacy is only about hiding bad things. That
couldn’t be more wrong.
It is fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law to
collect information about every member of the population in the hope of
conducting post hoc fishing expeditions to look for evidence of misbehaviour.
Could I remind the committee of the belief of Cardinal Richelieu that given 6
lines written by the most honest man he could show you the evidence to hang
It is unnecessary and completely disproportionate, not to
mention dangerously ineffective, “to collect innocent communications in order
to find those who might threaten our security.” Finding a terrorist or serious
criminal is a needle in a haystack problem – you can’t find the needle by
throwing infinitely more needle-less electronic hay on the stack. Law enforcement, intelligence and security
services have to be able to move with the times. They need to use modern
digital technologies intelligently in their work and through targeted data preservation regimes – not
the mass surveillance regime they are currently operating – engage in
technological surveillance of individuals about whom they have reasonable cause
to harbour suspicion. That is not, however, the same as building an
infrastructure of mass surveillance which, incidentally, in addition to being a
clear and present danger to democracy, makes it mathematically impossible for dedicated intelligence services staff
to do their job with any degree of effectiveness.
The committee should understand that computers are not
magic. These machines do exactly what
they are programmed to do not what
you would like them to do. I make
this point specifically in light of the Prime Minister’s recent comments to the
effect that the TV crime drama he likes so much justifies the mass data
collection activities of the intelligence services. TV crime drama and
Hollywood films generally are terrible
guides to how computers actually work in practice. The committee should additionally understand
that there is no clear distinction to be made between communications data (or
so called meta data) and communications content. If it is difficult to define
the distinction from a social or legal perspective it is impossible to implement
from the technical perspective.
a) What balance should be struck between the
individual right to privacy and the collective right to security?
How does this
differ for internet communications when compared to other forms of
such as closed-circuit television cameras? To what extent might it be
proportionate to monitor or collect innocent communications in order to find those
which might threaten our security? How does the intrusion differ between data (the fact
a call took place between two numbers) as opposed to content (what was said in the
1. If the committee only takes one thing away from this
submission let it be this –
Privacy and security are not opposites.
There is no
balance to be struck between the individual right to privacy and the collective
right to security.
2. Privacy has an image problem. It is constantly portrayed as
out of date, costly, an obstacle to public safety and new and exciting forms of
commerce and research. So if we pitch privacy against something as essential as
national security, it is a no contest. What does it matter if we have to
dispense with a little personal privacy for the guaranteed gain of being safer
and more secure?
3. It matters because when you start with this fundamentally
flawed premise and the committee’s flawed question, it leads you to the wrong
answers. The notion that privacy has to
be sacrificed for security is wrong. More privacy does not mean less security
any more than more security means less privacy. The associated (unspoken) idea
that individual privacy is damaging to society is wrong. There’s no strict
division between individuals and society. The welfare of both is inextricably
interlinked. The fundamental right to privacy of the individual is one of the
foundation stones of a healthy society. The value of protecting individual and
collective privacy is incalculably important to the future of our information
4. The constant refrain about the need to balance privacy and
security is quite simply wrong because it has a number of built in assumptions
that are wrong.
5. It assumes that privacy and security are opposites which is
false. A locked door and a tall strong fence provide security and facilitate
privacy. A reinforced cockpit door – the most important airline security
measure put in place since the atrocities of September 11th 2001 –
does nothing to compromise privacy.
6. It assumes that undermining privacy through the use of magic
modern computer systems will improve security. This is false. Democracy and
freedom requires privacy and security. That such mass surveillance will not
work can be demonstrated mathematically.
7. The esteemed chairman of the ISC, Mr Rifkind, has stated in
parliament (in the debate on oversight of intelligence & security services on
31st October 2013) that
“Of the totality processed by
computers, perhaps 0.01% will have selectors that the computer has been
programmed to look for. The communications of the other 99.99%— covering
virtually every citizen of this country, bar a very small number—are never even
looked at by the computer, other than in relation to a selector, such as an
e-mail address. Even for the tiny minority identified by the computers as
potentially relevant to terrorism, if GCHQ, MI5 or MI6 want to read the content
of any of the e-mails, they have to go to the Secretary of State for
permission. Under the law, only if they are given permission can the content be
8. I'm going to do some very rough maths here in an attempt to
explain the problem with Mr Rifkind’s point that only 0.01% of communications
data is looked at.
9. 0.01% of 60 million people in the UK implicates 6000. Now
the pattern flagging will be nowhere near as simple as that but just run with
it as a crude estimate. We know from the deputy
director of the NSA testifying before the House Judiciary Committee
you don't need to be a terrorist or have contact (deliberate or inadvertent)
with a terrorist to be flagged as suspicious. The NSA (and presumably GCHQ?) is
allowed to travel “three hops” from its targets – who could be people connected
to people connected to people connected to you. 0.01% of the UK population or
6000 people are 2 degrees of separation from about 160,197,360 and 3 degrees of
separation from over 26 billion
others (about three and a half times the
population of the world).
10. Even limiting suspicion to two hops, your 0.01% of data on
UK residents, Mr Rifkind, implicates more than 2.6 times the entire UK
population. So the question then becomes, given that we are all suspects, who
decides which suspects the intelligence services' limited resources should be
deployed to further investigate and pursue, once the computer algorithms have
worked their magic?
11. Every time the (theoretically 99.99% effective) magic
terrorist catching system is asked for a suspect it implicates vastly more
people than the security services could possibly investigate in any detail.
12. Mr Rifkind also rightly stated "Modern computers... are
programmed to run using certain selectors". So who gets to program the
computers and what are the specific 'selectors'/filters? Who decides what the
selectors should be? Who decides who decides what the selectors should be? The
chair of the ISC doesn't understand computers, so how can he effectively and
his committee scrutinise the technical aspects of this work? How do you measure
the efficacy of these filters given it is widely known in the tech community
how ineffective electronic filters can be? How, when someone is tagged as
suspicious via these secret algorithms, does the information on that individual
then get further processed? What happens when someone is wrongly tagged and how
do they retrieve their innocence and clean bill of electronic health? Are you
aware of the nature of false negative results and false positive results?
13. In multiple media engagements the Prime Minister, the Home
Secretary and other members of the government refer to "protecting the
public" from the four horsemen of the infocalypse - terrorists, drug
dealers, child abusers and organised crime - and more. The Prime Minister last
week extolled the virtues of TV crime dramas as a guide to how electronic
surveillance systems should be deployed in practice. TV crime drama and
Hollywood films generally are terrible
guides to how computers actually work in practice.
14. Mathematically the four horsemen are not problems that lend
themselves to mass data mining. Even highly accurate (to 99.99% and by the way
no current system comes close to that) data mining systems will swamp
investigators with false positives when dealing with a large population. Law
enforcement authorities end up investigating and alienating large numbers of
innocent people. That’s no good for the innocents, for the investigators or for
15. There is an oft repeated the myth that the 9/11 attacks
would have been prevented if only the US intelligence and security services had
known where Mohamed Atta was when he had made a phone call to a terrorist
suspect in Syria. The assumption is the magic terrorist catching mass data
collection and analysis apparatus now run by the NSA would have pinpointed his
location and led to his arrest.
17. Atta was known to the intelligence and security services and considered a
threat. Police, intelligence and security systems are imperfect. Even in 2001
they processed vast amounts of imperfect intelligence information. At least one
FBI agent believed Atta to pose a serious and imminent threat. That belief got
lost in the noise of the intelligence information processes, suspects and
issues the agencies were then dealing with, to the degree that they did not
detain Atta or his associates and prevent the attack.
18. There was too much data noise in the system and they lost him. You cannot
cure that excess of data noise problem by treating the entire population as
suspects, engaging in suspicionless, blanket collection and processing of
personal data. You cannot find the real terrorist by assuming everyone
is a threat.
19. Mass data collectors can dig deeply into the digital persona of anyone
but don’t have the resources to do so with everyone. The resultant
pursuit of false positive leads mean the real bad guys often get lost in the
noise, as happened with the 9/11 attackers including Atta who were known to US
authorities but not considered sufficiently important to intercept.
20. Finding the four horsemen is a needle in a haystack problem
and you can’t find the needle by throwing infinitely more needle-free hay on
your stack and/or creating multiple giant and exponentially growing data
21. Operating multiple massive databases of intimate personal
communications data makes the public more vulnerable to the four horsemen not
22. That such mass databases are useless for finding terrorists
is clear from the maths and the evidence. The NSA has admitted in spite of
previous claims that their mass data collection and analysis stopped 54 major
terror attacks since 9/11 it didn't really stop any, but may possibly have
provided secondary supportive evidence in relation to one. The most recent
argument they used to support the deployment of such systems is mass data
collection might be useful as an "insurance policy". An insurance
policy?! The infrastructure of mass surveillance might be useful in the future,
somehow, to someone?
23. That such systems also make the public less safe is
associated with the impossibility of securing mass silos of valuable personal
data. Computer scientists simply do not know how to keep databases of the
magnitude of those used by the NSA and GCHQ secure from external hackers or the
multitude of insiders who have access to these databases as a routine part of
their jobs (850,000 including Edward Snowden in the case of the NSA). Security experts like Ross Anderson, Bruce
Schneier, Edward Felten and Peter Sommer have written extensively about
this. To understand this you have to
think about how such systems can fail - how they fail naturally, through
technical problems and errors (a universal problem with computers), and how
they can be made to fail by attackers (insiders and outsiders) with malign
intentions e.g. the four horsemen. When the inevitable hacks, leaks, data
contaminations happen, what then?
24. In its most insidious form the misleading privacy v security
question is phrased as a statement along the lines “the innocent have nothing
to hide”. This assumes two underlying falsehoods – firstly that privacy is only
about hiding bad things and secondly that decimating privacy will solve the
problem du jour. I hope I’ve demonstrated clearly to the committee that both
these assumptions are wrong and that in answer to your questions –
There is no balance to be struck between the
individual right to privacy and the collective right to security
It is neither necessary nor proportionate nor
is it effective to engage in blanket monitoring or collection of innocent communications in an attempt to find
those who might threaten our security
25. On the question of whether the intrusion differs between
data and content I would refer you to Peter Sommer’s writings and analysis e.g.
analysis (sic) at
And his evidence before the select committee on the
Communications Data Bill.
b) Whether the legal framework which governs the security and
intelligence agencies’ access to the content of private communications is ‘fit for purpose’, given
the developments in information technology since they were enacted.
“Mass surveillance represents a commitment
to near-universal all-seeing gaze, so as to assess and respond to threats that
can arise anywhere, at any time. Privacy as a check on government power
represents a constitutional judgment that a limited government must have
limited power to inspect our daily lives, and that an omniscient government is
too powerful for mere rules to restrain. The experience of the past decade
confirms this incompatibility...
Technology has enabled government to have
investigative and situational awareness on a scale and scope that were science
fiction when the Stasi shut its doors. The "state of emergency"
mindset necessary to justify the program in the first place drives those
charged with assuring the safety of Americans to always use this technology to
its full potential; it also gives them an independent source of legitimacy for
their actions – the fierce urgency of necessity.
Their mission clashes with the fundamental
premise of privacy as a civil right: that state power is best contained by
making the overwhelming majority of what goes on in society invisible to the
state. As Justice Alito put it in the supreme court's decision to strike down
[Historically] the greatest protections
of privacy were neither constitutional nor statutory, but practical.
Once the state knows about behaviour, it is
hard to rely on rules alone to bear the full burden of preventing overreach by
those who wield its awesome power...
Rules alone cannot hold back the millions
of potential abuses of an omniscient state.
As long as government is allowed to collect
all internet data, the perceived exigency will drive honest civil servants to
reach more broadly and deeply into our networked lives.”
c) Proposals for specific changes to specific parts of legislation
governing the collection, monitoring and interception of private communications.
27. As Jemina Stafford QC made clear in a formal opinion for a
parliamentary committee last week, (http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/APPG-Final.pdf
the current mass data collection activities of sections of the UK government
already undermine the right to privacy guaranteed in the Human Rights Act and
article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is clear that the
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act does require an update but I don’t have
any specific proposals to put before the committee at this stage.
28. However, I do have a general proposal that suspicion should be the test for
29. The government of course has the right to intercept and
record information when someone is suspected of a serious crime. But current
operation [sic] appear to involve collection of data without suspicion: which is in
effect mass surveillance. Due process, since the 1765 case of Entick v
Carrington, requires that surveillance of a real suspected criminal be based on
much more than general, loose, and vague allegations, or on suspicion, surmise,
or vague guesses. To operate the mass date [sic] collection and analysis systems GCHQ
has been reported as doing which give the entire population less protection
than a hitherto genuine suspected criminal, based on a standard of reasonable
suspicion, is indefensible. The gathering of mass data to facilitate future
unspecified fishing expeditions is indefensible in law.
30. I appreciate the ISC and a multitude of highly dedicated
public officials are grappling with really complex issues here. But it is
critically important that you understand –
Privacy and security are not opposites.
There is no
balance to be struck between the individual right to privacy and the collective
right to security.
Computers are not magic and never will be
Mass data collection and analysis is
mathematically provable to be unfit for the purpose of hunting the four
horsemen of the infocalypse
31. It is also hugely important that you be provided with the
resources and expertise required to fulfil the immensely demanding duties
required of the committee.
32. I'd leave you with one final thought. Nearly 250 years ago,
Lord Chief Justice Camden decided that government agents are not allowed to
break your door down and ransack your house and papers in an effort to find
some evidence to incriminate you (the case of Entick v Carrington (1765) 19
Howell’s State Trials 1029, 2 Wils 275, 95 ER 807, Court of Common Pleas).
33. The good judge also declared personal papers to be one’s
“dearest property”. I suspect he might view personal data likewise in the
internet age. I understand Lord Camden's reasoning in Entick became the
inspiration behind the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution which offers
protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. For a quarter of a
millennium, fishing expeditions of the type that the GCHQ and NSA are engaged
in have been considered to fundamentally undermine the rule of law. It's time
Parliament brought these modern practices into line with that rule of law.
Update: I neglected to number the paragraphs in my submission on Friday. Now rectified and amended above.