New technology helps our enemies as well as us and raises new questions about providing security and preserving freedomby John Sawers / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read a second piece on the tension between security and privacy, also published in the February 2016 issue of Prospect, here
Sir John will be joining Prospect on 25th February to talk about his time as Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Tickets are going fast, click here to buy yours now
Can we stop a Paris-style attack happening in London? The honest answer is yes—most of the time.
As MI6 Chief, my top priority was identifying terror attacks against Britain planned from abroad. Working with intelligence partners in the United States and the Middle East, we had significant successes. You do not know about the attacks we prevented because they did not occur, and we don’t talk about them. Why give our enemies clues to how we stop them?
When I joined MI6, I was trained to spot people tracking me by tapping my phone, intercepting radio communications or following me by car or on foot. Today those techniques are used against terrorist suspects, supported by technologies like face or footstep recognition. But you have to know which people pose a threat—and first, you have to find them.
One method we use is the new science of data analytics. Every time you use your mobile, post a Tweet, shop online, drive past a CCTV camera, tap your Oyster card, or watch a YouTube cat video, you create data. Everything you do digitally—everything anyone does—makes these data oceans bigger, richer and deeper.
“These days, terrorists are scheming in cyberspace. If terror suspects are operating on the internet, it is essential that the police and security services have the legal power to track them”
So we dive into these data oceans and look for patterns. We search for snippets of information that warrant a closer look. Then we have to work out who, among several thousand possible extremist sympathisers, might launch an attack in Britain next week.
We need to follow suspects wherever they go. If a terror suspect enters a pub, it is reasonable if not vital that the police and security services have the legal power to enter and monitor him or her there. These days, terrorists are scheming in cyberspace. If terror suspects are operating on the internet, it is essential that the police and security…