Sir Tim Berners-Lee Hits Out At GCHQ Snooping

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Inventor of the World Wide Web slams the Internet snooping practices of the NSA and GCHQ

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has fired a broadside aimed squarely at the intelligence agencies of the United Kingdom and United States.

He condemned the scale of the snooping activities undertaken by the NSA and GCHQ, as revealed by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden. And he also hit out at the “appalling and foolish” strategy of cracking encryption methods used by many people and companies to protect their data.

Snooping Concern

The comments from Sir Tim came in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, during which he called for a “full and frank public debate” on Internet surveillance.

His comments are hardly surprising considering his well known stance as an open data advocate, and Berners-Lee has also previously criticised the government’s proposed internet surveillance measures. He said last year that those measures to allow GCHQ to monitor online and mobile communications “keeps me up most at night”.

GCHQ doughnutBut it is clear from Thursday’s interview that he is also very alarmed at the scale of the snooping activities conducted by the British and American spy agencies. He made it clear that he regards whistle-blowers and newspapers like the Guardian as an important check against what he believes is a lack of oversight in both the US and UK governments, which he called “dysfunctional and unaccountable”.

“Whistleblowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role in society. We need powerful agencies to combat criminal activity online – but any powerful agency needs checks and balances and, based on recent revelations, it seems the current system of checks and balances has failed,” Berners-Lee said, speaking from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Here is where whistleblowing and responsible reporting can step in to protect society’s interests,” he reportedly said. “It seems clear that the Guardian’s reporting around the scale and scope of state surveillance has been in the public interest and has uncovered many important issues which now need a full and frank public debate.”

Encryption Cracking

And Berners-Lee was equalling damming about the NSA and GCHQ cracking of encryption methods used to protect data and companies around the world.

“In a totalitarian state where it reckoned it was the only strong state in the world, I can imagine that being a reasonable plan,” he said. “But in this situation, internet security is hard. It’s naïve to imagine that if you introduce a weakness into a system you will be the only one to use it.”

And Berners-Lee also argued the practice was unethical for democratic countries, which have to take the moral high ground.

“Any democratic country has to take the high road; it has to live by its principles,” he said. “I’m very sympathetic to attempts to increase security against organised crime, but you have to distinguish yourself from the criminal.”

Parliamentary Investigation

And finally, Berners-Lee also called for whistle-blowers to be protected. Snowden for example has escaped arrest in the United States and taken refuge in Russia.

“Civilisation has to a certain extent depended on whistleblowers, and therefore you have to protect them,” Berners-Lee said.

The comments from Berners-Lee come as the heads of the UK’s spying agencies – GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, face public questioning on Thursday in Westminster by parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC).

The ISC is to investigate the powers granted to GCHQ for surveillance operations. The committee had already decided GCHQ has not broken the law in intercepting people’s data, whether over the Internet or otherwise.

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