Bulk interception

Seeking to assuage concerns about mass surveillance, the ISC Report of March 12, 2015 reasoned that although talk of “bulk interception” was justified by the numbers of communications intercepted, the GCHQ in fact engaged in targeted surveillance. First, the GCHQ has the technical capacity to access only a “small percentage [redacted]” of the 100,000 bearers comprising “the core infrastructure of the internet,” and at any one time accesses “only a fraction” of the bearers that it is capable of accessing. 

Para. 58. Second, the GCHQ only collects internet traffic flowing through the accessed bearers if it matches simple selectors related to individual targets, or, for a much smaller number of bearers, complex criteria composed of multiple elements. Finally, analysts select only a small fraction of the collected traffic for examination.

The redaction of the numbers that convinced the ISC that increasingly radical selection takes place at each stage makes it impossible to independently assess the extent to which GCHQ surveillance is targeted. Nor does the Report contain any explanation of the criteria analysts use for suspecting someone of criminal activity or considering him or her a national security target. This stymies assessment of the ISC’s conclusion that “Only the communications of suspected criminals or national security targets are deliberately selected for examination.” Concl. J. Further hindering independent evaluation, the ISC decided that the GCHQ “case studies … demonstrating the effectiveness of their bulk interception capabilities … cannot be published, even in redacted form ….” Para. 81.

Dismissing concerns raised by Liberty, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, and Justice, the ISC stated that, “While we recognize privacy concerns about bulk interception, we do not subscribe to the point of view that it is acceptable to let some terrorist attacks happen in order to uphold the individual right to privacy – nor do we believe that the vast majority of the British people would. In principle it is right that the intelligence Agencies have this capability, provided – and it is this that is essential – that it is tightly controlled and subject to proper safeguards.” Concl. M. By assuming, however, that the need to combat terrorism always trumps privacy concerns, the ISC begged the question of what it means for surveillance to be “tightly controlled and subject to proper safeguards.

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