GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan (known within the trade as ‘C’) promised the British public a debate on surveillance and privacy. Instead we got a week-long lecture from Home Secretary Theresa May on how the Government is determined to further erode our already depleted liberties, a report from intelligence and security apologists accusing social media companies of harbouring terrorists, and a predictably ambiguous ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal on the ‘legality’ of snooping. So, disappointed not to be part of, or witness to, a real debate? Fear not, for as a ‘Christmas special’ UndercoverInfo is delighted to publish a transcript of a recently recorded conversation on all matters GCHQ (aka SPECTRE) between Mr Hannigan and a surrogate Tony Hancock, the English comedian renowned for his self-aggrandizing and sardonic wit. While the early part of the conversation sees ‘Hancock’ characteristically disarming, it’s not long before his questioning adopts a more exacting and darker tone…
Note: for those unfamiliar with the works of the real Tony Hancock (who died after committing suicide in 1962 – RIP) an URL to video clips of his TV programmes – together with links to detailed analyses of GCHQ operations – is given at the end of the transcript.
‘Tony Hancock’ (TH): [wearing his usual camel-hair topcoat with Astrakhan collar and a homburg hat; standing at GCHQ reception desk] Excuse me, I’ve come for the debate.
Receptionist (woman in blouse and pin-striped skirt): I’m sorry? Who are you? Er, how did you get in here? This place is Restricted Access only.
TH: The debate: your new head honcho, Mr Halligan…
TH: Yes, him: he promised us all a debate. Well, he’s taking his time to organise it, so I’ve come in person. Can’t dilly-dally, you know: come a long way.
Receptionist: You’ll have to leave. Security will show you out… [Meanwhile a man in a charcoal grey suit walks by.] Sir, this gentleman has asked to see you. Has he an appointment? I don’t know how he managed to enter the building.
TH: [Hancock turns to the man in the suit.] You must be Mr Hannigan. My name’s Hancock. Spelled the usual way: H A N C O C K. Anthony Hancock. Address: 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.
Receptionist: [who had just typed something in a device] Middle name Aloysius.
TH: [Hancock turns back to receptionist.] I should think so! Wouldn’t be much of a snooping system if you didn’t have me on it. You know [he turns back to Hannigan] it’s taken me all morning to get here. I had to stand all the way too. Bring back British Rail – that’s what I say! Anyway, as I said, I’ve come for a chat. Man of the people, that’s me: what you see is what you get. I just need about… half an hour. Some tea and biscuits would be nice too.
Robert Hannigan (RH): Not possible, Mr Hancock. [He turns to go, but a younger man, also in a suit – an underling – whispers something and Hannigan turns back to Hancock]. There again, this could be useful: a litmus test.
TH: Blimey! You’re not going to conduct some brainwashing experiment on me? I shall be writing to my MP, if you did…
RH: No, no, Mr Hancock [Hannigan laughs]. I was speaking metaphorically. Could be a dry-run, you see: give me a handle on what a typical member of the public…
TH: ‘Typical’? I should cocoa! Very well, let’s get on with it: time is of the essence! You’re not the only important one around here!
[RH guides TH to an area to one side of the reception, to two comfy armchairs next to a table with assorted copies of magazines, neatly displayed – Wired, the New Statesman, UKIP monthly – and they sit down.]
RH: No tea and biscuits, I’m afraid. So, fire away, Mr Hancock.
The Great Hannigan-Hancock Debate:
TH: Fire away! This isn’t some cold war! But, as a matter of fact, you’re in luck: I’ve made notes – did some research on the way: the Guardian and Channel 4 News.
RH: [an audible groan]
TH: Oh, yes: none of that tabloid rubbish – only quality stuff, that’s me. Been surfing the Interweb too. Now, where were we… [He examines his notes.] Question One: in at the deep end – how many people in the British Isles do you spy on?
RH: Well, Mr. Hancock, I’m sure you appreciate that while we may have the technology to ‘spy’ on everyone, we just don’t have the time and staff to actually do that.
TH: Which is why you have Etch–a-lon.
RH: You mean Echelon.
TH: That’s what I said… our friends in the USA and Australia and the other countries – Canada, New Zealand… via all that fibre-optic stuff that none of us seem to get for our broadband connection if we live anywhere outside a town – should never have privatised BT, you know.
RH: Yes, yes… and I’m sure you agree that the co-operation of our allies, overseas, is absolutely key if we are to track down terrorists, not forgetting the drug gangs, sex traffickers and pædophiles.
TH: Well I trust you also include the politicians who were in that pædophilia ring associated with Elm Guest House and a Dolphin Square flat where at least one boy is believed to have been murdered. You’ve got to agree that British politicians are ingenious when it comes to public inquiries: first, it takes them months to set one up, then it takes years for the inquiry to produce a report, which turns out to be more or less meaningless – and by then most, if not all, of the guilty are dead. Anyway, you forgot to mention political activists in your list of targets.
RH: Dissent, Mr Hancock, is essential in a liberal democracy and at GCHQ we adopt an entirely egalitarian approach when it comes to political expression. You see, it’s not a person’s politics we’re interested in, it’s their behaviour – whether or not they stay within the law of the land.
TH: And I’m sure GCHQ tries its best not to cross that line too – but I’ll come back to you on that later. Now my next question is about privacy. You know, fifty or even twenty years ago most people would have been horrified by the invasion of privacy that’s taking place today: they’d probably have lynched your lot. As it turns out, Mr Blair – Eric, not Tony – was right all along. And I think it was your predecessors – or perhaps it was one of those ex-MI5 spooks – who said how there’s never been a right to privacy.
RH: Quite right. In fact, to be pedantic, given that we don’t have a written Constitution, you could say we don’t have any ‘rights’ at all. Having said that I believe that today’s younger generation completely understands that when it comes to keeping everyone safe, compromises have to be made.
TH: And I read somewhere that another of your colleagues said something about how ‘ordinary folk’ have nothing to fear from mass surveillance as the only thing you’re monitoring is all that ‘messy data’.
RH: Metadata, Mr Hancock. So, yes, there’s nothing to worry about.
TH: Near enough forty billion separate pieces of information every day, I understand you collect.
RH: Er, more or less. But that exactly proves my point: I mean, we can hardly read all the forty billion? [He laughs]
TH: Of course not – which is why you have your high-tech computers to do that for you; applying logarithms.
TH: Though there must be some value in that metadata, particularly when you match it against other information. For example, if you cross-reference metadata with data from the DVLC – say a driver’s licence. And then there’s car registration. And local Council records. And the Land Registry. And the Electoral Roll. And Public Transport passes. And National Insurance records. And the Inland Revenue. Oh, and there’s GPS tracking via mobile phones and tablets. And there’s online shopping and credit or debit card payments. Not forgetting ATM withdrawals, Social Security payments and – I almost forgot – all the information captured by CCTV.
RH: Yes, yes, in theory it’s all there if we need it. But I should emphasise…
TH: And once all that information has been aggregated, the picture that emerges is…well, total. By the way, even though I don’t have a mobile phone, or a telephone at home, or a computer, I expect you still have masses of information on me – including that time I organised a protest at the local Council office: it was about pot holes in the roads – or, rather, why they weren’t being dealt with.
RH: Mr. Hancock, we are hardly interested in pot holes! [Another laugh.]
TH: Or there was that time I campaigned with millions of others against our going to war in Iraq – everyone could see it was all about oil and that your lot were telling porkies. So many unnecessary deaths too – on all sides. And a few months back I contacted an employment agency to see if I could go and help those poor Yazidi people in northern Iraq – I never heard back from that agency. I suppose you have that on file too.
RH: It’s important to understand that here at GCHQ we do not discriminate. To identify and catch terrorists we have to spread the net as wide as possible.
TH: Of course, as soon as you identify one lot of terrorists, another lot pop up to take their place – which means you’re on a continuous war-footing. But, you see, Mr Hannigan, we ‘ordinary folk’ are well used to that. I did my bit in the war, you know. Oh, yes! Well, not as a soldier – I was too young. I was in the cubs: collected pots and pans to melt down for bullets. Do not underestimate us.
RH: Of course not. Indeed, we at GCHQ rely on people like yourself: we need all the help we can get [Hannigan tries hard not to appear patronising].
TH: I don’t doubt it – though you’re hardly going about it the right way. For example, it’s now widely known that you monitor the correspondence and phone calls and emails of lawyers. Mind, I don’t for one minute like how lawyers overcharge their clients, but snooping on their correspondence – surely that undermines our already biased justice system? I also read how you monitor journalists and their sources: in doing this, you end up compromising the Fourth Estate too – never mind discouraging whistle blowers, who, when it comes down to it, risk their livelihoods and liberty simply to reveal truth.
RH: Mr Hancock, despite what you may have read in the Guardian – a very readable newspaper, by the way, even if we did insist they destroy the hard disk that contained the Snowden revelations – despite what you have read, you may also be aware that the Commons home affairs select committee recently recommended that these aspects of our work are to come under review – which we welcome. But, regardless of the outcome of that review, I can assure you that national security will always take precedent over other considerations. What you should also appreciate is that we in the intelligence and security services have a duty to find out what criminals are up to at every stage, and if that means we occasionally monitor solicitor-client communications, then so be it.
TH: Occasionally? I thought you said you don’t discriminate? Which brings me to my next question: it concerns trade unionists – I assume you monitor them too.
RH: The days of union militancy and three-day weeks are long gone.
TH: No it’s all zero contracts, these days. But if you did come upon the odd troublemaker you would no doubt do what you’re expert at: flag them up and circulate information about them. And, of course, you have excellent working relations with not just the Government departments and statutory bodies but also the local councils, with the major institutions, with all major private companies, with universities, as well as recruitment agencies.
RH: In any working democracy a vetting process…
TH: It used to be known as blacklisting: some American members of my fraternity knew only too well about that. Anyway, I assume it’s part of your remit to make sure these troublemakers who happen to organise strikes, or end up as whistle blowers, are not provided the opportunity to cause further major problems: that, in consequence, they become more or less unemployable.
RH: An over-simplification.
TH: Now my next question [Hancock looks up his notes]… Ah, yes: it’s about that Tempura program? All sounds quite fishy.
RH: My, you have been busy, Mr Hancock. It’s called Tempora, by the way. I wouldn’t concern yourself about that. It’s merely…
TH: …about placing taps on the transatlantic fibre-optic cables of all the major telecommunications corporations, where those cables land on British shores, which I understand is in Cornwall – at Porthcurno and Sennen Cove, to be precise. Lovely beaches, by the way! I spent a week there two summers ago. Anyway, I’ve brought a copy of a slide with me – not beaches, I’m afraid, but an extract from a list of your fibre-optic routes that shows how your surveillance is truly global – which must be very exciting for you, though somewhat annoying for our allies in Europe – unless, of course, they pay you to spy for them.
RH: You do realise that list is classified?
TH: Not once something is in the public domain. Anyway, my understanding is that this tapping helps you monitor not only internet data, but also phone communications to and from Western Europe, as well as to and from North America. Must keep you very busy – though I gather BT, Vodafone and Verizon have very kindly been helping you out.
RH: As I said, co-operation is key to ensure our work proceeds smoothly and…
TH: And, no doubt, if those telecommunications companies decided not to help, they’d hardly be flavour of the month! Might have their licences curtailed.
RH: That situation never arises: these companies are fully aware of how vital their support is for the security of the nation. And so their help in recent…
TH: Recent? As I understand it, Cable and Wireless – which, of course, is listed as ‘Gerontic’ on your list – has been working closely with GCHQ on these intercepts for years. I believe you paid them around £20 million back in 2010 for their ‘co-operation’, as you put it. But, as I was saying, once that fibre-optic traffic reaches your base at Morwenstow you then run programs to identify keywords in the content of e-mails and chat messages, as well as other documents – which must be very handy when metadata is not particularly revealing.
RH: As I have said….
TH: You don’t discriminate – of course, you can’t, otherwise you’d never find the proverbial needle. There again, you’ve also got programs that help identify any encryption used via, say, a VPN; or where TOR is used without TAILS so that you can insert malware, such as Regin, into PCs and snoop directly on the user.
RH: That’s all classified too.
TH: Though it also stands to reason that these programs will sabotage the work of those political activists fighting repressive regimes and who rely on encryption to avoid getting caught and executed. Which reminds me about what Malcolm Rifkind, the head of the Intelligence and Security Committee, said… how he expects social media companies such as Facebook to police all of its content and flag up to the authorities anything that appears criminal, particularly in relation to terrorism. But how on earth can Facebook judge who is a terrorist and who a freedom fighter?
RH: We merely ask they provide us with all relevant information so that we can work that out. But if they don’t, then they and the other social media companies will simply end up as safe havens for terrorists – and that’s the last thing they want.
TH: There again, you must be aware of the practical and legal, not discounting ethical consequences of what you – and Rifkind – are advocating. For example, should Facebook decide to fully co-operate with the UK authorities, it would then be partisan to Britain’s interests – and so any neutrality that company claims would be nullified. However, to avoid any accusations of bias, if Facebook decided to pass on any worrisome information to all governments then that would mean authoritarian governments too and, consequently, Facebook’s complicity in signing the death warrant of activists. Also, even if these social media companies do agree to your proposal, those terrorists whom you’re hoping to deter would simply seek out alternative social media services. Which brings us back to the matter of encryption and my next question: about the methods you use to crack encrypted systems.
RH: Well I’m sure you don’t expect me to comment on that! [Hannigan laughs] Look, rather than get too technical… You see, here at GCHQ we are immensely proud of our decryption – I mean, code-breaking – history. This goes all the way back to the stupendous efforts of that great man, Alan Turing, who, as you no doubt know, cracked the Enigma code at Bletchley Park and so shortened World War Two by two years and saved millions of lives in the process. We are the successors of Turing and his team…
TH: I assumed you’d prefer not to go into too much detail – which is why I’ve brought a copy of another slide – one of yours – about NSA decryption processes.
RH: It’s just one of those slides Mr Snowden revealed: another over-simplification.
TH: And here’s a third slide – this one’s from the NSA and summarises some of the hacking processes that are deployed against social media and search engine companies.
RH: We prefer not to use the term ‘hack’.
TH: I don’t know why – after all, you and the NSA are credited with inventing hacking. Anyway, what that slide is really about is uncertainty, in that social media and search engine users will always have that nagging feeling their communications are being monitored.
RH: Mr Hancock, I can assure you that is not the case. And I’m sure you will be aware that social media companies have issued statements denying all knowledge of a ‘back door’ mechanism, as Mr Snowden and his supporters colourfully put it. Also, many of those companies have recently gone to great lengths to incorporate encryption technologies into their services so as to assuage any fears their customers may have.
TH: Yes I’m aware of these developments. And I’m also aware that there is a test case underway involving Microsoft, which will decide whether the NSA, via the US courts, can demand access to information held anywhere by US companies that have bases overseas. And if that case decides in favour of the NSA, that will force many of those companies to seek partnerships with non-US companies so as to avoid compliance. A further consequence is that they will also seek to incorporate even greater encryption into their services. Nevertheless, I am aware you have a range of technologies to bypass such encryption. For example, there’s Edgehill, which you use in conjunction with the NSA’s Bullrun program to monitor HTTPS sites, voice-over-IP and SSL – technologies which are supposed to help protect online shopping and banking transactions, but by hacking your way through these barriers you can find out, for example, what people are buying as well as information about their banking practices. All highly unethical, if not illegal – and hardly, I should add, setting a good example to the British public.
RH: We do whatever is necessary to protect the public.
TH: And, of course, soon you won’t have to rely solely on decryption tools, or back door mechanisms, as the British Government is intending to change the law to compel ISPs and communication companies to reveal details of their users and all the websites they visit to the police and security services. That is, surely, front door access.
RH: When it comes to tracking down troublemakers, to use a cliché, we just can’t leave any stone unturned.
TH: By ‘troublemakers’ do you mean Greens? Or the Occupy protesters? Or human rights activists? And what about those people who are not part of any protest, or organisation, but simply concerned with the injustices of this world? Where do you draw the line?
RH: We’re not in the business of drawing lines – we connect them; identify linkages, profiles and so on: that’s our expertise. We have to spread the net wide, otherwise the consequences would be tragic.
TH: My final question – it’s about the NSA and its Commercial Solutions Centre: I gather it was set up to advise companies on how to protect their online security.
RH: GCHQ and the NSA and our other partners are very keen to assist companies around the world to avoid hacking and other forms of intrusion.
TH: Although, as you know, the Centre’s true purpose is to enable the NSA to identify and penetrate those companies’ digital weaknesses. And in doing that, the communications of billions of users of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Hotmail, LinkedIn and Skype – and probably most blog hosts too – are rendered vulnerable – not just by the NSA, but also its partners, including GCHQ, which I assume justifies this exploitation on the basis that those services are defined as “external communications”.
RH: What you should realise, Mr Hancock, is that our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee. Also, the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – RIPA, as it’s known – clearly requires that any tapping of defined targets is authorised by a warrant, signed by the Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary.
TH: ‘Defined targets’, yes – but you’ve admitted you go much further. And isn’t there is a clause in RIPA that allows the Foreign Secretary to sign a certificate for the interception of not targets but broad categories of material as long as one end of the monitored communications is abroad? And we’ve already established that the very nature of modern fibre-optic communications means that a large proportion of internal UK traffic is relayed abroad, where it is monitored by your Echelon partners before being returned to the UK together with the results of that monitoring. For example, via the NSA you are able to reference the PRISM service and so monitor all UK users’ content in foreign-based services. All of which must make the legalities you’ve quoted somewhat irrelevant. And as for the Intelligence and Security Committee – I think the words ‘craven’ and ‘subservient’ spring to mind, for all it ever seems to do is issue the odd bland statement about ‘checks and balances’ or how they have ‘full confidence’ in your most necessary work. Its members, even though they’re cross-party, are all establishment types anyway – so they’re hardly going to say anything else. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights said how he believed the mass surveillance operations conducted by GCHQ are contrary to the rule of law. And that might also explain why several organisations – Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group, English PEN as well as the German internet activist Constanze Kurz – have initiated legal action against you, alleging intrusion on the privacy of millions of British and European citizens.
RH: I must repeat: there is no legal right to privacy – at least not in the UK.
TH: Exactly. But in Europe there is. And the UK is a signatory to several conventions that ensure that what you do can be liable to prosecution. Which reminds me, it must have been very embarrassing when it was revealed how GCHQ had been monitoring the conversations of foreign government representatives at a conference on climate change at the UN. The same, too, when it was revealed how the NSA had been tapping the phone of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
RH: I can’t comment of any of that. Look, I’m afraid, Mr Hancock, I have to draw our meeting to a close. You did say half an hour? [Hannigan glances at his watch.]
TH: By my reckoning we’ve another five minutes. By the way, if you really want a mass debate on GCHQ…
RH: A masturbate on GCHQ? [Hannigan blushes.]
TH: …You should include people who can ask far more exacting and technically accurate questions than I can. I’m talking of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Ewen MacAskill, Sarah Harrison, Glenn Greenwald, Duncan Campbell, Jacob Appelbaum, and representatives from Big Brother Watch, Privacy International, Reprieve, Liberty and Open Rights. These people could participate either in person or by video link. Nothing less than them and the debate – which should be televised live, by the way – will have zero credibility.
RH: Not possible. [Hannigan now looking annoyed.]
TH: Not really: I still have contacts at the BBC – though it’s possible Channel 4 may be interested, assuming the debate took the form I suggested. Also, while I’m offering advice, I suggest you ensure your operations are fully and regularly scrutinised – not by insiders, but by lay people, with experts at hand if they need technical explanations.
RH: Again, I’m afraid that’s not possible. [Hannigan now sounding tetchy.]
TH: I can see why that would be difficult for you. But what you must realise is that you can’t expect people to trust you if you don’t trust them: it’s about mindset. You see, most people in this country are not unlike me. They’re good-natured and do not need religion or government to explain the difference between right and wrong. They recognise and fight injustice and help others if they are in need. Nor are they driven by greed or a yearning for power, but by an innate compassion for others. The so-called ‘British values’ they subscribe to are not a monopoly of a Conservative Party – or any other political party – but encompass a rich tradition of free thought – and rebellion – going back centuries… from Wat Tyler – who led the revolt against the Poll Tax and was consequently hung, drawn and quartered… to the Levellers and the Diggers during the Civil War period – who simply demanded that there be greater democracy than the farce that it has become today… to Mary Wolstonecraft – who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, but who, mercifully, did not suffer the same fate as Thomas Paine… to radicals such as Percy Shelley – who sided with the Irish in their demand for independence and who penned one of the greatest poems ever written to condemn the massacre of protesters at Peterloo… and to William Blake – another of our great poets, who was charged with sedition but whose name, fortunately, was cleared of this calumny. These free thinkers and rebels, like many political protesters and activists of today, were not a threat to democracy: they were – and still are – the embodiment of democracy. The same with Edward Snowden, by the way: if he is guilty of anything it is that he exposed the treachery of the NSA in its violation of the American Constitution, as well as the lies to Congress by your former counterpart there. As for the great Mr Turing, whom you referred to earlier: perhaps it’s more truthful to say that GCHQ, in its early manifestation, failed him tragically at a time when he most needed protection – when he was forced to accept chemical castration, so leading to his suicide.
RH: Not our finest hour. [Hannigan glances at his watch again.]
TH: GCHQ has also failed the British public in that by expanding its surveillance operations to an extreme they are now at a level that even the Stasi, as wicked as it was, could only have dreamt of. Today GCHQ is the equivalent of a modern-day Domesday – a record of everyone, so as to corporatise and digitise all that we do and are. So how did GCHQ get to this point? Well, on the one hand you’re tasked with spying on ‘extremists’ and criminals and pædophiles, while on the other you’re also required to monitor the entire population. And that’s why what you do is flawed: it’s about overkill and dissipation of resources – which explains, incidentally, why you and the other security and intelligence services get things wrong now and then. And while no one would disagree that terrorism of one sort or another is – and always be – a real and present danger, for politicians and the media and the intelligence and security agencies to conflate terrorist threats with political justifications for mass surveillance is reprehensible.
RH: Mr Hancock, you must understand that we have good people working here – people with the best of intentions…
TH: I’m not doubting the sincerity of your staff, though you must surely be aware that since the recent revelations of your operations and that of your Echelon partners any credibility GCHQ had has all but dissipated. Which brings us back to where we began in our conversation: how you thought it could be useful as a litmus test. Well, I applied a litmus test too – the ‘Hancock Litmus Test’. But I’m afraid you never stood a chance of passing it. You see, regardless of whatever changes you make to your surveillance policies and technologies, the ultimate objective of GCHQ and the other intelligence and security agencies is – and always will be – to defend the political and corporate establishment – their power and their wealth – no matter what the consequences to society. Now I really must go: I’ve an appointment at the hospital in Cheam to donate some blood – just doing my civic duty. [Hancock stands up and nods briefly at Hannigan.]
RH: [Hannigan also stands up.] It’s been an interesting conversation, Mr Hancock, and not everything you’ve said I disagree with. But before you leave I have a question to put to you: how on earth did you get into this building?
TH: I’m afraid, Mr Hannigan, that’s classified. Be seeing you! [Hancock smiles, then disappears.]
Tony Hancock videos:
GCHQ and Tempora:
GCHQ encryption codes:
GCHQ fibe-optic intercepts:
How Vodafone-subsidiary Cable & Wireless aided GCHQ’s spying efforts:
Role of UK phone companies in assisting GCHQ: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/aug/02/telecoms-bt-vodafone-cables-gchq
The NSA files:
Duncan Campbell articles on GCHQ:
Investigatory Powers Tribunal judgement on Tempora: