The world transmits 2.8 million emails a second. Britons sent 60 billion text messages in 2009. Can Britain's vast signals intercept operation, a pillar of its alliance with the United States, keep up? The simple answer is no, at least not with traditional bugs and intercepts, says Richard Aldrich, author of a study of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) monitoring agency. The torrent of data is as much a curse as a blessing for the eavesdroppers and code busters of GCHQ, which works with U.S. ally the National Security Agency under a 1946 pact published for the first time by Britain's National Archives on Friday. But civil liberties campaigners should not cheer, Aldrich says in GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain's Most Secret Intelligence Agency. While the service did not help create, or even wish for, today's wired world, its experts are dealing with the resulting wave of data by developing “hyper surveillance” systems that will need tough independent oversight if liberties are to be protected, he says. “In 50 years' time there won't be much privacy left. There's going to be information everywhere,” Aldrich said in an interview. “So what matters is who owns it, and the oversight.” The agency is piloting a programme to sift the digital trail left by people's daily lives — who is phoning whom, who is emailing whom — by using powerful data mining methods to trace networks of targets like criminals and terrorists, he says.

The danger is, such programmes may mistake good guys for bad guys, he argues. “Once you go over to data mining you are essentially handing the process over to robots, who roam through this material looking for patterns of suspicious activity,” he says. The danger is false positives — people who have done a series of random things but when a machine looks at it, it says that person has done something bad.”

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