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New era of "robot" spies will test privacy

LONDON (Reuters) - The world transmits 2.8 million emails a second. Britons sent 60 billion text messages in 2009. Can Britain’s vast signals intercept operation, a pillar of its alliance with the United States, keep up?

A man keys in a message onto a mobile phone in a Milan bar March 3, 2006. REUTERS/Daniele LA Monaca

The simple answer is no, at least not with traditional bugs and intercepts, says Richard Aldrich, author of a study of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) monitoring agency.

The torrent of data is as much a curse as a blessing for the eavesdroppers and code busters of GCHQ, which works with U.S. ally the National Security Agency under a 1946 pact published for the first time by Britain’s National Archives Friday.

But civil liberties campaigners should not cheer, Aldrich says in GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency.

While the service did not help create, or even wish for, today’s wired world, its experts are dealing with the resulting wave of data by developing “hyper surveillance” systems that will need tough independent oversight if liberties are to be protected, he says.

“In 50 years’ time there won’t be much privacy left. There’s going to be information everywhere,” Aldrich said in an interview. “So what matters is who owns it, and the oversight.”

The agency is piloting a program to sift the digital trail left by people’s daily lives -- who is phoning whom, who is emailing whom -- by using powerful data mining methods to trace networks of targets like criminals and terrorists, he says.


The danger is, such programs may mistake good guys for bad guys, he argues.

“Once you go over to data mining you are essentially handing the process over to robots, who roam through this material looking for patterns of suspicious activity,” he says.

“The danger is false positives -- people who have done a series of random things but when a machine looks at it, it says that person has done something bad.”

So who is to blame for setting society on a path to an ever-expanding degree of surveillance?

Aldrich reports that the sense inside GCHQ is that far from being an omniscient service, its operatives feel “increasingly weak ... left behind by the unstoppable electronic revolution.”

Aldrich says the real drivers of the electronic revolution have been private companies looking for growth and private individuals in search of luxury and convenience, who in effect place such priorities ahead of privacy and security.

“Bizarrely many British citizens are quite content in this new climate of hyper-surveillance, since it is their own lifestyle choices that have helped to create it,” he writes.

The truth, he says, is that “nobody is in control.”

“No person, no intelligence agency and no government is steering the accelerating electronic processes that may eventually enslave us,” he writes.

“Most of the devices that cause us to leave a continual digital trail of everything we think or do were not devised by the state, but are merely symptoms of modernity. GCHQ is simply a vast mirror, and it reflects the spirit of the age.”

In a rare statement in May 2009, in response to a newspaper report that it had a plan to “spy at will” on emails, the agency denied it was developing technology to monitor all Internet use and phone calls in Britain, or to target everyone in the UK.

It added that one of its main challenges was “maintaining our capability in the face of the growth in internet-based communications and voice over internet telephony.”

The 1946 British-American UKUSA intelligence sharing agreement was made public for the first time Friday by the UK National Archives following Freedom of Information Act requests.

The document can be foundhere

Editing by Myra MacDonald