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Snowden showed need for new laws, says former MI5 director

There is a lot of work to be done in building trust and accountability in the wake of the Snowden revelations, says former MI5 director

Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations have led the UK government to recognise that legislation governing surveillance is not fit for purpose, according to former MI5 director Jonathan Evans.

“While there were several negative aspects to his actions, this is the one positive outcome,” he told the GoodExchange Cyber Security Summit 2015 in London.

“You won’t be surprised to hear that I think it is a good idea for the government to be able to listen to people’s telephone conversations,” said Evans.

“But it is a good idea so long as it is within a framework of law, so that it can’t be done as a part of a mass surveillance exercise, which I don’t think is justifiable, and it needs to be accountable,” he added.

Similarly, Evans said there is widespread recognition that to safeguard against terrorism and national security threats, the government does need to be able to intercept and access the communications of people who are a threat even if they are operating on the internet.

But again, he said, it has got to be on the basis of law and that means it has got to be accountable, which is why the UK government plans to introduce new legislation in the coming months that is more transparent. This will provide appropriate accountability and ensures that powers cannot be abused, Evans explained.

“It is a good thing to have privacy and to be able to not worry that the government is taking any undue interest in you if you are an ordinary citizen,” he said.

“But equally, there is a legitimate responsibility on the government to protect people where it can from bigger threats. So drawing the right boundaries in that is complex, but that is something that is coming to parliament in the next few months and will be in legislation within the next 15 months.”

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On the topic of digital identity and the demand for anonymity online, Evans said he suspects this will end up being resolved by the US coming with an answer that will be adopted by the rest of the world.

“My own view is that full anonymity – although I can see the attractions of it – would be undesirable because of the licence it gives to bad actors to do whatever they want without any restraint,” he said.

Evans added that there needs to be trust and accountability. But, he said, that is going to “take a lot of building” because these things are currently lacking.

“Trusting any one government with this is going to be difficult, so the question is can you create some kind of trusted third party which is sufficiently insulated from government and political agendas to command the kind of trust that is needed,” he added. 

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