Writing in Tuesday's Financial Times, the new director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan, called for "greater co-operation from technology companies" to stop terrorists and criminals groups using online services as their "command-and-control networks of choice".
His words completely ignored the Snowden revelations that showed the immense surveillance powers and access to our data that GCHQ has. Instead of talking about GCHQ's apparent habit of collecting the entire British population's data rather than targeting their activities at criminals, he thought he would try to frame the debate as about GCHQ needing more help from technology companies.
David Cameron has come out in support of Hannigan's comments. Hannigan's statement is the latest in a concerted campaign by the Government and the intelligence agencies to bolster support for their surveillance powers.
Even Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats - who traditionally have a good stance on digital rights issues - said he supports blanket collection of data.
And Theresa May and the Home Office are so obsessed with surveillance, they want to scupper the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's plans to let us use our mobile phones on every mobile network; a plan that would increase connectivity and support the UK economy.
This is a big debate. And if we value our privacy from Government surveillance, we're going to have to fight for it.
That's why ORG's spent the last two days pushing back against Hannigan's comments in the media.
We've appeared on BBC TV news and Radio 4 and been quoted in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Guardian. We also wrote a comment piece in the Independent.
ORG is playing a huge part in fighting for our privacy by making sure that GCHQ and the Government don't get to push through more surveillance powers unopposed.
We're already holding the Government to account in the courts by taking them to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge GCHQ's practices and oversight and intervening in a case on DRIP - an Act forcing ISPs to retain our email and web data that Parliament rushed through earlier this year.
We'll also be trying to force privacy and digital rights onto the agenda of new MPs at next year's election. We'll hold lots of local debates with Parliamentary candidates in the run-up to polling day in May. And we've got plans for helping ORG supporters to challenge candidates that knock on their door.
But Theresa May and David Cameron will be running their election campaign from precisely the opposite angle. That's why it's so crucial ORG has the resources we need to stand up to them.
When you join ORG you'll get a free ticket to our annual conference ORGCon on 15 and 16 November in London. We've got fantastic speakers and we're focusing on surveillance including a talk on what big technology companies are doing about mass surveillance.
In his first public statement since becoming Director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan yesterday described the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple as, 'the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals,' and called on them to give 'greater co-operation' to the intelligence services. It is a surprising challenge to these companies, given how much GCHQ relies on them for our data.
Edward's Snowden revelations that the NSA and GCHQ were monitoring our personal calls, texts, emails and webchats did not just damage the credibility of the US and UK governments but also the tech companies who to varying degrees had been complicit in sharing our data. But even when they weren’t handing data over, the TEMPORA programme meant that information from their networks was hoovered up anyhow through the tapping of fibre-optic cables.
Companies responded by encrypting data in transit. By doing this, they are forcing our intelligence agencies to use court orders to make requests for data. To our knowledge, tech companies don't refuse these requests when they are made legally – so when Hannigan calls for 'better arrangements' it is unclear what he really means.
In any case, the debate over acquisition of data, in which politicians like to talk of the Internet “going dark”, takes place in a world where data and records of our phones, flights, emails, photos, movements and heartbeats are proliferating. We should be highly skeptical of claims that data is difficult to get hold of.
There are at least five ways that GCHQ can acquire data to investigate terrorists (plus foreign governments, companies, climate change negotiators, human rights activists and EU officials).
Firstly, they can collect all the data off the wires. As we noted, this is becoming harder, as encryption is more common.
Secondly, they can weaken our encryption methods, by adding backdoors, so they can always decrypt things. The problem with that is it means organised crime can find the backdoor, and they can steal our credit card details, passwords, and everything else that we want to keep safe. The Snowden documents suggested that the NSA and GCHQ have tried this, which, if true, is deeply irresponsible.
Thirdly, they can find ways to break into computers, phones and routers. They find this a lot easier than you might think and invest a lot of money in it.
Fourthly, they can seize your computer and demand any passwords.
Fifthly, they can go to a company like Google or Facebook with a legal order or warrant.
The problem is that GCHQ and the NSA don’t want personal security to get in the way of them looking at our data: they want banks of computers to check on everyone to make sure you don’t pose a threat to them. That is what bulk collection and analysis means, though they daren’t spell it out that way. Instead, they talk of “needles” being separated from “innocent hay”.
They will claim that they need to find every criminal and terrorist at the press of a button, and to do this, they must break encryption, and seize all of our data secretly. Even if that were true, the cost is enormous. It threatens the personal security of our online activity and leaves us vulnerable to criminal activity. It also gives the intelligence services unrestricted powers to monitor our communications continuously. Perfect surveillance is a kind of omniscience that most people would not trust ordinary mortals with.
Hannigan is right: privacy is not an absolute right but that does not mean it should down to GCHQ or tech companies to decide just how much privacy we are entitled to. That should be down to our courts and judges. We expect that GCHQ will nearly always be able to get what they ask the courts for. This may not be everything they want to get hold of but democracy and freedom mean that government agencies don’t get to have all of the information, all of the time.
This article was originally published by The Independent.