William Hague, the Conservative former Foreign Secretary in the UK, has claimed that the latest Brussels terrorist attacks “show the need to crack terrorist communications.”
Writing in The Telegraph, Hague claimed that the stand-out detail from the attacks in Brussels was “the communications discipline of those responsible.”
Since the attacks, the Belgian authorities have claimed that the murderers used pre-paid disposable phones, which were untraceable by any surveillance on their financial accounts. Subsequently, it was not possible to monitor the terrorists through regular communications surveillance.
Hague – who, as Foreign Secretary, held ministerial responsibility for MI6 – wrote that “the mobile phones they carried had evidently not been used before and showed no record of texts, chat or emails” – but such “discipline” should not surprise us, he said, as “every mastermind of terrorism or organised crime” had been tipped off about operational security by Edward Snowden.
The use of pre-paid phones, also known as "disposable" or "burner" phones, as part of an criminal organisations' operational security against communications surveillance, was, in fact, publicised a decade before the Snowden revelations in the television show The Wire.
Following the Brussels attacks, US Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-SF) introduced a bill to prohibit the anonymous sale of pre-paid mobile phones in America.
She blogged that such "burner phones" were "pre-paid phones that terrorists, human traffickers, and narcotics dealers often use to avoid scrutiny by law enforcement because they can be purchased without identification and record-keeping requirements. This bill would close that legal gap."
Whether this was a legal or operational gap is unclear however. Hague, who was responsible for a note threatening to revoke the Ecuadorian embassy's diplomatic status after it provided political asylum to Julian Assange, made the curious claim that: “Whatever means of co-ordination [the Brussels attackers] used, it was sufficiently private or encrypted that the authorities do not seem to have been aware of it.”
The UK is fortunate in having some of the world’s best intelligence agencies and capabilities. That they have prevented many attacks is publicly acknowledged. But they have been hampered in recent years by the Snowden leaks, by the rise of widespread encryption by communications firms, and by developments in technology.
Encrypted communications would not prevent the intelligence services from making connections between co-ordinated parties, as cryptography can only protect the content of a communication and not its metadata. As the Home Office has established, it is metadata which constitutes the primary means of establishing connections between individuals who are suspected of posing a threat to the public.
The interception of the contents of an individual’s communications in this country can only be carried out with a warrant signed by a senior minister. For four years, I was one of those ministers, and if people could see – which they obviously can’t – the time, care and detail spent on each case, including by the minister, I believe they would be greatly reassured.
This oversight mechanism is set to be updated by the Investigatory Powers Bill, which as it stands will see ministers' decisions to sign off on such warrants "reviewed" by judges. Critics have suggested, however, that it should be judges themselves authorising these warrants.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “This debate is not about whether ministers take time or care when it comes to signing off warrants. It's about whether judges or politicians are better equipped to decide about matters of legal procedure and whether surveillance is necessary and proportionate. There is really no argument in favour of political authorisation, which is why every other liberal democracy has a system of judicial authorisation."
"Ministers have to sign thousands of warrants each year. You would think that they would welcome more time to focus on the strategic interests of the country rather than wading through legal cases," added Killock.
Hague noted that interception was not the only tool used for "cracking ... terrorist and criminal networks", but stressed how the spooks also needed "access to 'bulk data' [which] logs which internet sites were visited on which device, and which device was used to contact another one."
This ability "is vital in order to see patterns in the behaviour of those who might join a cell such as the one in Brussels. And it can help us to spot them if they make a mistake," wrote Hague. ®