Outdated anti-terror laws hamper the UK’s ability to stop attacks, says ex-MI5 chief

Sir Jonathan Evans, who was Director General of the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency MI5 from 2007 to 2013, says the country’s ability to stop terror attacks is being undermined by obsolete laws that are “no longer fit for purpose.”

If intelligence services were allowed to properly monitor potential security threats the country would be much safer, Sir Jonathan said.

Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and other social media are hard for intelligence agencies to access, making it extremely difficult to gain timely information.

Sir Jonathan’s comments follow Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to introduce new legislation that would allow agencies to track would-be terrorists on the Internet.

In a Comment in the Sunday Telegraph, Sir Jonathan emphasized his belief in the British traditions of liberty and freedom. He says that was why he was happy to work in MI5 for over 30 years, helping protect the nation from extremists, terrorists and autocrats who threatened people’s liberties.

He added, however, that a government is failing in its duty if it does not maintain strong security against the threats its people face.

Sir Jonathan wrote:

“What’s more, inadequate security leaves people feeling vulnerable, reluctant to express themselves freely, and unwilling to participate in civil society. Feelings of vulnerability may also encourage some hotheads to take matters into their own hands – and such vigilantism plays into the hands of the extremists.”

Technology has changed, but not the laws

Rapidly changing technology is undermining the ability of the police and security agencies to protect their citizens.

Sir Jonathan added:

“We expect them today not just to follow up a crime or terrorist attack and identify the perpetrators, but to do all they can to stop the attack or crime from taking place at all. They can only do this if they have the tools to do so – and the tools at their disposal are no longer fit for purpose.”

It is much harder today for the police or security agencies to know what criminals or terrorists are talking to each other about compared to ten years ago because of technological changes. People can now communicated via telephone, email, text, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook and several other channels.

Getting access to all these channels of communication “is challenging”, and has been compounded by the revelations of whistleblowers, such as the American contractor Edward Snowden who leaked data on the activities of the US National Security Agency, which intercepted online communications.

Mr. Snowden’s revelations have helped terrorists and criminals know about agencies’ interception capabilities, which means today they are better at avoiding scrutiny. The Internet and communication providers today are less keen to help the authorities than they had been before Snowden’s revelations, in case they suffer media criticism or commercial disadvantage.

Sir Jonathan explained:

“What this means, in stark terms, is that if you are abusing a child or planning a terrorist attack, you are more likely to be able to avoid the attention of the police or security agencies today than would have been the case a few years ago.”

Current legislation that allows the security agencies and police to access communications for intelligence was made before these the emergence of these new technologies – they were not designed for today’s digital world.

Criminals and terrorists are exploiting these outdated laws, knowing that increasing areas of electronic communications are beyond the reach of law enforcement.

“It is imperative that the laws that govern this issue be brought up to date. If nothing is done, things will not stand still – they will get worse,” Sir Jonathan said.

About Sir Jonathan Evans

(Source: Security Service MI5)

Sir Jonathan Evans (born 1958) joined the Security Service in 1980 after gaining a degree in Classical Studies at Bristol University. He started off working on counter-espionage investigations.

In 1985, he was transferred to protective security policy and advised several Government departments on the protection of classified data. He then worked with Sir Anthony Duff on implementing policy changes to modernize the service.

He subsequently concentrated on domestic and international counter-terrorism. During the late 80s and 90s much of his work involved Irish-related counter terrorism. He also did a spell as head of the Security Services secretariat and two years in the Home Office.

From 1999 onwards, he became directly involved in countering international terrorism. In 2001, he joined the Security Service’s (MI5’s) Management Board as Director of international counter terrorism – this was just ten days before the 9/11 attacks in New York on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

In 2005, he became Deputy Director General to Dame Eliza Eliza Manningham-Buller. In 2007, he was promoted to Director General.

In the 2013 New Year’s Honors list he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of Bath (KCB), and retired in April 2013.

In October 2014, Her Majesty The Queen conferred a peerage of the United Kingdom for Life on Sir Jonathan.