Director General Andrew Parker today gave the first live interview by a serving head of MI5 in its 106-year history.
The DG appeared on BBC Radio 4 to talk about the work of MI5 to keep the country safe, address some misconceptions about the organisation, and outline some of the security challenges he sees ahead.
In the coming months, Parliament will consider a new bill to overhaul the existing laws that give intelligence agencies like MI5 their powers to protect national security.
The DG has spoken publicly to set some context around the threat from Syria/Iraq-related terrorism ahead of the parliamentary debates.
Following his interview, the DG said:
“MI5 exists to keep the country safe. There should be no more of MI5 – with no more powers - than necessary to do that.
“Today we are being stretched by a growing threat from terrorism, and from Syria in particular, combined with the constant challenge of technological change.
“The way we work these days has changed as technology has advanced. Our success depends on us and our partner agencies having sufficient up to date capabilities, used within a clear framework of law against those who threaten this country.
“I welcome Government’s intent to update the legal framework accordingly and to make our powers more transparent. Keeping our laws up to date in this area can only be a good thing in a free, democratic country – the very thing MI5 exists to protect. We need to be able to operate in secret if we are to succeed against those who mean the UK harm. But the capabilities we use can be described more fully in law.
“We take our legal and ethical duty to use these powers proportionately extremely seriously. We never use them for the sake of it and do not trawl at will through people’s private lives.
“I pay tribute to the exceptional dedication, professionalism and sacrifices made by the men and women of MI5, those in communities who help us save lives, and our colleagues in GCHQ, SIS and the police.”
The UK is facing an unprecedented level of threat with Syria and Iraq increasingly at the forefront of MI5’s work. Together with its partners SIS, GCHQ and the police, MI5 has thwarted six attempts to carry out an attack in the last 12 months alone and intelligence has disrupted several further attack plots overseas in that time.
In addition to plots directed, enabled or supported by terrorists in Syria, MI5 is facing a real challenge trying to thwart the actions of those inspired by ISIL ideology via the internet. In the course of its investigations, MI5 has seen individuals radicalised to the point of violence within weeks.
But MI5’s ability to spot this small number of individuals so it can intervene in time is increasingly difficult in the online world. Once they have been identified, getting access to what they are planning is far more difficult than in the past.
Technology is bringing great benefits to society and making our lives easier. But now so much of people’s lives are conducted online, MI5 needs the tools to be able to follow terrorists in cyberspace as much as when they are walking down the street.
MI5 uses its powers for the good of the country and to keep people safe. Its staff must scrupulously observe the law and many safeguards in place while they do their job and act to the highest ethical standards.
Independent reviews of all the powers of UK intelligence agencies by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) and Reviewer of Terrorism legislation David Anderson QC agree we need tools that can counter threats in a borderless digital world. They are clear we operate within the law but argue that greater transparency is needed.
MI5 is accountable is to the Home Secretary. Its work it scrutinised not only by the ISC but two independent Commissioners and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (see Law and governance).
Checking through large amounts of data is very often the only, and most crucial means MI5 has to track down terrorists who are plotting to cause harm to the UK.
Communications data – the detail of who is calling whom and when - is used in all MI5 investigations and, combined with other types of data, such as travel data, has provided us with crucial leads and saved lives in this country and abroad.
Analysing communications data was crucial in identifying a group of seven individuals in the final stages of their plans to blow up the London Stock Exchange and other symbolic locations in 2010. MI5 was able to quickly identify links between the individuals which would otherwise have been extremely difficult to work out. Combined with other data, MI5 tracked the movements of the group, and worked with police in order to disrupt the whole network before the attack was carried out.