Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech

UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'

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GCHQ Benhall doughnut aerial view

Sir Iain Lobban's final speech as GCHQ director omitted any mention of that man Edward Snowden, and unlike recent speeches by FBI and law enforcement officials on both side of the Atlantic, the spy boss had no critical words for Apple and Google's plans to roll out improved encryption on smartphones and computers.

Instead, an invited audience at London's Churchill War Rooms on Tuesday heard Lobban's reflections on spying over the last 31 years.

The audience of officials, commentators, and representatives from industry and academia heard about the heroic role of signals intelligence during World War II, as well as how the service evolved during the Cold War.

They also heard a great deal about how GCHQ staff operate within a strict regulatory regime, despite revelations from Snowden about mass interception of transatlantic fibre communications and hacking into systems at Belgian telco Belgacom.

Lobban talked about the “enormous exodus” to the internet and how this new domain, although presenting new and unprecedented opportunities, has equally become a place where the less appealing aspects of human nature can flourish and cause harm.

"We all now know that the beautiful dream of the internet as a totally ungoverned space was just that — a beautiful dream. Like all utopian visions, it was flawed because it failed to account for the persistence of the worst aspects of human nature. Alongside the blessings ... there are the plotters, the proliferators, and the paedophiles.”

"We continue to look for the patterns, connections and abnormalities that indicate or illuminate hostile capability and intent," GCHQ's outgoing director said.

He also talked about various events during the summer while he was preparing his farewell speech, including GCHQ's work with the National Crime Agency, which made "further arrests of predators involved in child exploitation". Nearly 200 cyber incidents against the UK's networks of "national significance" were detected, and responded to, over the months of summer, he added.

GCHQ works to “dissect with surgical precision fragments of information from the noise, vital information that our country needs to remain safe — but always within the law," according to the spy boss.

“The people who work at GCHQ would sooner walk out the door than be involved in anything remotely resembling ‘mass surveillance’,” he claimed.

He characterised the work of the agency as fighting terrorism, fraud, and child sexual exploitation. "With our partners at Mi5 and SIS [MI6] we apply all our skills to keep our streets safe from terrorists; we work to stop the spread of destructive weapons across the world; we strain sinews to locate hostages imprisoned in dark and dangerous places; with the National Crime Agency we battle serious and organised crime; we counter internet fraudsters and their malware to save the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. And we also battle to save something upon which nobody can place a value: we strive to protect our children from terrible abuse."

He went on the outline GCHQ's official version of how it carries out these tasks.

Those who would do us harm don’t want to be found. They use certain routers or applications to hide in the darkest places of the internet. We have to enter that labyrinth to find them. We work to crack their defences. We have to understand what adversaries seek to do to us and dedicate ourselves to preventing them from realising their plans. And the vast majority of those criminal threats to the UK are posed by groups or individuals based overseas. So we need strong intelligence and cyber capabilities to identify them and, where international law enforcement doesn’t work, to disrupt them directly. This combination is increasingly essential.

To accomplish this tasks requires "accessing the internet at scale", he argued.

We access the internet at scale so as to dissect it with surgical precision. Practically, it is now impossible to operate successfully in any other way. You can’t pick and choose the components of a global interception system that you like (catching terrorists and paedophiles) and those you don’t (incidental collection of data at scale): it’s one integrated system.

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