The British government has acknowledged that successful intervention against planned dissident republican attacks may be the result of MI5 and MI6 hacking computers and phones..
It’s been claimed that, for every one of 20 bomb attacks during 2014, MI5 and the PSNI are believed to have stopped three or four others coming to fruition.
A new report by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation also alludes to how the dark web may now be an important tool for dissidents, and acknowledges various statutory authorities may be intercepting or seizing people’s communications data using several legal mechanisms outside the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000, which was supposed to regulate these practices.
In ‘A Question of Trust’ David Anderson QC says: “Northern Ireland’s progress towards a post-conflict society is unfortunately far from complete. A real terrorist threat persists in parts of Northern Ireland.”
This was manifest in three security-related deaths, 71 shooting incidents, 44 bombing incidents, 49 casualties from paramilitary-style assaults, 230 arrests under the Terrorism Acts, and 37 charges in the year to February 2015.
The report said: “Of the 20 dissident republican attacks during 2014, most were unsuccessful. But the Director General of MI5 has said that ‘for every one of those attacks we and our colleagues in the police have stopped three or four others coming to fruition.’
“My own regular visits to Northern Ireland, where I am briefed in detail by police and security services, give me no cause to doubt that assessment.”
Mr Anderson reports how the Britosh gvernment admitted for the first time in February that the security services are actually allowed to hack phones and computer equipment as part of their investigations into dissident republican activity.
“Deserving of mention here is CNE (Computer network exploitation or hacking, in common parlance), which may be carried out in order to access stored communications, amongst other things, under Intelligence Services Act (ISA) 1994 ss5 and 7,” said the report.
“ISA 1994 s5 gives the Secretary of State the power to issue warrants authorising MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to interfere with property in quite general terms. “The interference must be proportionate to its objective and the material obtained must be used in carrying out those agencies’ functions.
“CNE was avowed for the first time by the Government, in February 2015, by the publication of the Draft Equipment Interference Code.
“This makes clear that Equipment may include, but is not limited to, ‘computers, servers, routers, laptops, mobile phones and other devices.’
“It supplements the existing Covert Surveillance and Property Interference Code.
“MI6 and GCHQ may both obtain authorisation, pursuant to ISA 1994 s5, to carry out equipment interference, such as hacking, in pursuit of their statutory functions, except where the property is in the British Islands and the purpose is the prevention or detection of serious crime.
“MI5 may also obtain s5 warrants in pursuit of its statutory functions, although where the function is to act in support of law enforcement and the property is in the British Islands, the warrant may only be authorised in order to secure the prevention or detection of what amounts to a serious crime.
“MI5 may further undertake activity under ISA 1994 s5 in support of MI6 or GCHQ.
“ISA 1994 s7 (which has been referred to as the ‘James Bond clause’) provides a power for the Foreign Secretary to authorise GCHQ or MI6 to carry out acts outside the British Islands that might otherwise be criminal offences or give rise to civil liability.
“GCHQ had five s7 class-based authorisations in 2014, removing liability for activities including those associated with certain types of intelligence gathering and interference with computers, mobile phones and other types of electronic equipment.
“MI6 had eight class-based authorisations, removing liability for activities such as the identification and use of CHIS (Covert Human Intelligence Sources) directed surveillance and interference with and receipt of property and documents, and may seek further ministerial authorisations in respect of specific operations.”
Mr Anderson also suggests dissidents may be making use of the dark web.
“The Tor Project claims that c.98.5 per cent of traffic on the Tor Network is from users accessing the open web. It may thus be a valuable tool for anonymous activism, dissident activity, victims of digital abuse such as cyber stalking and even covert online surveillance by law enforcement authorities.”