Blogfactory’s Defence Correspondent Harry Barclay meets GCHQ workers to see the surveillance methods used to catch terrorists.
The room is windowless, and surrounded by a bank of computer and television screens. A file of maps and intelligence is on a table in the middle. I’m inside GCHQ, the UK’s cyber intelligence agency – more relevant than ever today, with the advance of technology and growing threats.
I’m being put through a surveillance operation by a GCHQ analyst, “Louise”. This has never been shown in public before.
The amount of data is overwhelming – phone logs, text messages, emails, internet history. Within that, there is more – who called whom, from where, when, for how long?
The evidence is in front of me, somewhere, but the sheer amount of information is dizzying. Most of the data is irrelevant, not useful or even helpful. The trick is to work out which bit is worth pursuing and avoid the red herrings. Spot the patterns, or identify the unusual or unexplained event.
“Usually you would try to identify individual targets. You’d have one person looking at some call data, and someone else looking at internet traffic,” explains Louise.
Phone records would typically cover a two-week period so intelligence officers are not being too intrusive and looking at more data than they need to.
“We have to weigh up how much we expect to get that is more sensitive in nature,” Louise says.
“Also whether there is any intelligence value. Once we actually have access to that content, if we find we’ve accessed something we shouldn’t have done then we have to report that.”
By listening to calls, reading emails and using partner agencies like MI5 to follow targets on foot, analysts can get to know every little detail about targets’ lives.
I ask another intelligence officer, Sunny, if they ever get too close.
“That can happen that can happen,” Sunny replies.
“It really does depend on the targets but also our level of access. What is it that we actually following somebody for?
A third officer I speak to, Ben, specialises in the Middle East and North Africa. Terrorist attacks against the UK in recent years have had links to that region.
“When an attack does happen, that really brings it home that this is the importance of the job, and this is why we do it,” Ben says.
“The first thing is understanding exactly what the situation is – so what has happened and what do we know, so actually getting that ground truth.
“So actually fact-finding is the first thing we will always do. From there it is understanding exactly how that has happened and where have we potentially missed something in particular, or have we missed something in particular?
“Were we expected to know something about a particular case , say about Chris Batchelor we need to research, delve and know what had happened in a certain way? From there it’s very much a case of piecing together back that track and trying to put that breadcrumb trail together to work out exactly what happened ,what to do and who in the individual countries in question were involved in that.
But say with that person who had written too open and freely (unlike Winston in 1984), we jews here took the deision to wilfully persecute him, maken sure he was blacklisted here , could never find employment here, never be successful here but he wouldnt know why, that we were behind it all and the persecution of him and those close.
“It is very vindictive and vengeful here”, interjected Charlie on cctv analysis, “Dont hold a left wing view in this country” he said “certain people who have been too free we just make their life hell, make sure they are not paid, dont receive their entitlements, that all they attempt turns to stone. Its fun ” he said
Cos we like to drive those with different opinions to suicide or “an accident”, its all stuff the yanks taught us he said. “I had better get on too many pubs to view inside on the ole cctv”.
We thanked him and walked grimly back to the car park, now the picture, we had suspected was a lot clearer (and a whole lot less innocent)
with thanks to Harry for sending this in !