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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 22 June 2021

UK spies can't handle all of the data they collect

This was disclosed by GCHQ during an inquiry into the investigation of Lee Rigby’s murder.

Image: broadband cable via Shutterstock

A REPORT PUBLISHED this morning on the investigation into death of British solider Lee Rigby has focused attention on how much data intelligence authorities can monitor online.

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament found that one of two men who murdered the Fusiller, Michael Adebowale, had discussed online his plan to kill a soldier with an individual overseas, codenamed FOXTROT.

Both had been tracked by MI5, with Michael Adebolajo considered a high-priority person of interest, but authorities failed to spot this conversation.


Adebowale and FOXTROT spoke “in the most graphic and emotive manner” of the plan, five months before murdering Lee Rigby, saying it was prompted by UK involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The finger of blame has been pointed at an unnamed US company. The committee’s chairman has gone so far as to say that they are ‘unintentionally providing a safe haven for terrorists’.

However, while this conversation was missed, intelligence agencies knew an awful lot about the pair – and everyone else.

One section of the report explains that Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, can target internet communication that travels over major internet cables.

While they say that they can only view a small level of internet traffic, the amount of data is so large they only have resources to access a certain amount of it at a time.

Here’s the section in full:

GCHQ also has access to communications as they move over the internet via the major internet cables. This provides the capability to intercept a small proportion of internet traffic: in theory, GCHQ can access around ***% of global internet traffic and approximately ***% of internet traffic entering or leaving the UK.

However, the resources required to process the vast quantity of data involved mean that, at any one time, GCHQ can only process approximately *** of what they can access.

This means that the odds of collecting the content of the communications of an individual who is not specifically being targeted are *** – even if their communications have met other selection criteria they are ***.

If GCHQ had unknowingly ‘picked up’ the exchange between Adebowale and FOXTROT using this collection capability, the fact that neither Adebowale nor FOXTROT were under active investigation at the time means that the communication would not have been selected for further analysis.

(Hat-tip to Gavan Reilly)

Read: Lee Rigby’s killers were tracked by MI5, but murder ‘couldn’t have been prevented’ >

More: Ex-Garda working as a PI illegally obtained info from PULSE >

Data: Privacy shouldn’t be sacrificed for safety from crime, survey finds >

About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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