British spies do not carry out “random mass intrusion” into lawful citizens’ lives, a senior intelligence official said on Tuesday.
Ciaran Martin, director general for cyber-security at GCHQ, said the agency uses its legal powers extremely carefully and warned the country faces threats in cyberspace daily.
Martin said the UK faces chronic, advanced and persistent threats online and warned that it was impossible to construct a cyber-security umbrella over the country.
He also said that GCHQ has been “genuinely surprised” by the range of organisations targeted.
Last week, as E&T reported, the Government announced plans to introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill, included in the Queen’s speech.
The new legislation “will modernise the law on communication data”, according to Downing Street, but is expected to incorporate and expand on aspects of the controversial Communications Data Bill.
The Bill, commonly known as the ‘snoopers’ charter’, was shelved in 2013 after the Liberal Democrats opposed it.
The legislation will aim to equip authorities with powers they have repeatedly said they need to combat terrorism and serious crime.
Details of how the new laws would work will be published in the next few days, but it is believed that internet service providers and mobile operators will be required to log more data about their customers, with more focus on the content of the communications.
GCHQ’s practices have been in the limelight in recent years following revelations from the former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In a speech at the Infosecurity Europe conference in London, Martin said: “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 went on: “I can't and won't talk about that in any detail today. The Queen's speech set out the process for considering legislation on proper powers for national security and law enforcement bodies in this area and it's for ministers to propose what those should be and for parliament to debate.
“All I would say is that 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 criminals, terrorists and activists have different motives and therefore they operate in different ways.
He said: “Some attack vectors are very scatter gun – firing out malware, phishing emails. Seeing where they can get in and taking it from there.
“We see this a lot. For obvious reasons we can't and don't publish the list of organisations we've had cause to look into and work with over the years.
“We have been genuinely surprised by the extent and variety of UK organisations subject to intrusions.”
Other attacks are “much more targeted and capable”, he added.