In the first interview of its kind, Andrew Parker talks to the Guardian about the ‘enduring threat’ to the UK, surveillance and greater public understanding.
MI5 has its roots in the run-up to the first world war. In 1909, the targets were suspected agents working for German naval intelligence, the focus was on Germans living in Britain. The Daily Mail, as ever, was alert to the danger, advising readers: “If your waiter is German, refuse to be served by him.”
In the 107 years since, there have been 17 director generals of MI5. Until 1993, their identities were a state secret. And even after an emergence of sorts into the public eye, the guiding rule to their life at work was: say as little as possible and what you do say, say discreetly.
“International terrorism in its latest shape, based on twisted ideology, brings terror to our streets and most of the developed world, including North America, Australia and Turkey,” he says.
“Currently, the flavour of it is Daesh, or Isil [Islamic State], and we still have the al-Qaida brand. This is something we have to understand: it’s here to stay. It is an enduring threat and it’s at least a generational challenge for us to deal with.”
He says the number of terror plots thwarted in the past three years stands at 12. “That sort of tempo of terrorist plot and attempts is concerning and it’s enduring. Attacks in this country are higher than I have experienced in the rest of my career – and I’ve been working at MI5 for 33 years. The reality is that because of the investment in services like mine, the UK has got good defences. My expectation is that we will find and stop most attempts at terrorism in this country.”
And the third is the covert threat from foreign governments. He is most exercised about Russia, which he says is at work across Europe and in the UK, using military means, propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks to achieve its foreign policy aims. “It’s MI5’s job to get in the way of that.”
With budget increases that mean 1,000 more officers will be brought in over the next five years, he says his aim is to get the gender balance to 50-50. Recruitment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates is running at 14%, similar to the national average.
Parker says: “We need to be able to do surveillance of terrorists. We have to approach, cultivate and recruit people to be agents to work for us. That does not work so well if everybody looks like me.”
He says that because of the sophisticated threat, MI5 needs to operate at the cutting edge of technology. Current jobs on offer include: cyber-risk accreditor, senior business analyst, information architect, problem analyst, covert technical operations specialist, and security architect.
But the issue of mass surveillance will not go away. The investigatory powers bill – where Labour has a chequered history – was before the Lords on Monday. Critics, including the Guardian, argue that it goes too far in allowing access to personal data. The Economist put it like this: the government has been caught between the civil liberties lobby and the spies. It has chosen the spies.
Parker said he is troubled by this characterisation. “This suggests MI5 is someway on a seesaw, that we are on one end of the seesaw wanting more and more intrusion and the privacy lobby [is] protecting rights. We have to be balanced by civil rights and we are firmly committed to finding the right balance.”
And what about the finding of the investigatory powers tribunal, which said security agencies unlawfully collected personal data for 17 years – from 1998 to 2015? The tribunal concluded this contravened article 8 of the European convention on human rights – the right to privacy for an individual and his or her family.
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