I swore that when I started writing this blog, I would not venture into any other subject matter that was not related to cycling. However, I have become so wound up after exchanging Tweets tonight with Tom Harris MP that I feel I would like to set the record straight. Tom is obviously an intelligent guy, he writes a great blog, which I have read from time to time, and he is to be applauded for engaging with the great British public on Twitter. But, and this is a big but, if I have understood him correctly, he doesn’t know much about how the Intelligence Services monitor internet communication.
Firstly, a few declarations from me. I do not work for the intelligence services and never have. I am not a “conspiracy theorist”. I do not believe in UFO’s – and the Roswell incident – and I do not believe that the Government covers up incidents . I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. Until recently, I believe he acted alone. But there has now been some evidence published that Cuba and the Soviets may have been involved. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. To be honest, I don’t really care. It happened before I was born and I don’t live in the USA, Cuba or Russia. It doesn’t affect me in any way whatsoever. I also don’t believe that Diana was killed by MI5/MI6/Prince Phillip etc etc. She died in a car accident. It was spooky that she wrote that letter saying that she thought Prince Phillip would have her killed off in car accident but that’s not necessarily proof. Anyhow, I digress.
I want to talk about internet communication. I understand that Tom’s main accusation against me is that I believe that “Military Intelligence is reading all my emails and is interested in monitoring what I say and what my respondents say.” Well, that sounds pretty fanciful doesn’t it? And the reason that sounds pretty fanciful is because I never actually said that. And I don’t believe it to be true.
However, I’ll tell you what I do know. Before 9/11, maybe even a few years before that, there were many different intelligence agencies doing different things. Military Intelligence monitored the former Soviet Union, MI5 kept their eye on criminals in this country (and a few other things), MI6 monitored foreign agents, the Met Police dealt with crime in London and a few specialised interests – diplomatic security, for example. I’m not an expert, so I can’t give you all the detail and I’m not going to try to.
Post 9/11, everything changed. All these security agencies who had previously only shared information with each other when they had to, suddenly woke up and thought, maybe we should work more closely with each other. It’s not much of a surprise really is it? The threat has changed, they have to change.
So this brings me on to the point I want to make. The way that we all communicate these days has changed too. The only time you get a letter in the post, it’s a gas bill. We communicate through email, Facebook, Twitter, text and phone conversations, often mobile. If you think that the intelligence services do not have the ability to monitor these forms of communication, you are deluded. And the fantastic thing for them is that due to the method of transfer of digital information, it’s also very easy for them to eavesdrop. Are they interested in that email that your Mum sent you about whether you bought your new fridge? No. Are they interested in that naughty chat you had with your new girlfriend? No. Are they interested in the emails you exchanged with a friend about how to book a cheap flight on Easy jet? Of course not.
But if you started emailing someone discussing how to buy nuclear material from one of the former Soviet states, you might just start to light a few red lights at GCHQ or MI5 or MI6 or Military Intelligence HQ. Again, I can’t give you all the detail but I have a rough idea of how it works.
The Intelligence Services use software to monitor emails . So, to keep things simple, let’s say that they’re interested in monitoring anyone who uses the word “nuclear”. They will monitor anyone who sends an email using the word nuclear through their software. But hang on a second, I hear you say. What if I email my friend and start talking about a nuclear family because I’m giving him advice? The way the software works, it will be looking for combinations of words, phrases and other associations. They also monitor key individuals on their radar in this country. Once emails are picked out by the computer, an Intelligence officer will read the email, and others in the account to see if they are relevant. Sometimes they will be, sometimes they won’t. They probably pick up a lot of rubbish too, and are aware of it.
Where Tom and I diverge is that he thinks I am interested in what the intelligence services get up to. Honestly, I’m not that interested. Maybe if there was some juicy gossip, I would be interested, like anybody else. But I’m not really that bothered.
The reason that I am interested is that I would like other people to know that potentially any email, text or phone conversation you have could be monitored by the intelligence services. I no longer discuss confidential information about myself or others close to me via email. This isn’t because I live a particularly interesting life, it’s just that you never know who you might be sharing that information with. But, you say, I have a complex alpha numeric password which makes it impossible to hack my email? Not true. If the intelligence services can’t hack into your account themselves, they will contact the service provider directly if necessary.
Any form of electronic communication is insecure. Even if you have taken elaborate steps to encrypt your emails or texts, the security services can pick it up. So if you want to have a confidential conversation with a relative or friend, go to a park or for a walk in the countryside. It’s a good way to tone your butt as well.