Andrew Parker and Today Programme presenter Mishal Husain (BBC)
Andrew Parker and Today Programme presenter Mishal Husain (BBC)

MI5 director general Andrew Parker has argued for the ability of police and the intelligence services to be able to access private electronic communications in his first even live interview.

The interview, conducted by BBC journalist Mishal Husain on Radio 4's Today Programme on Thursday, was notable for the fact that it was the first ever live interview by any head of the MI5 in its 106 year history.

In his interview, he called on social media companies to cooperate with the security services and police to turn over the communications of those suspected of terrorism, child sexual exploitation and serious crime.

“Because of the threat that we face from terrorists, if we are to find and stop the people that mean us harm, MI5 and others need to be able to navigate the internet, to find terrorist communications, to be able to use databases to find and stop the terrorists who mean us harm before they can bring their plots to fruition,” Parker said. “We have been pretty successful at that in recent years but it is becoming more difficult to do that as technology changes faster and faster.”

His views echoed comments made to SCMagazineUK by senior law enforcment officers, including Commissioner Adrian Leppard of the City of London Police (see interview in next month's SC Magazine, October), and Jamie Saunders, director of the National Cyber Crime Unit at the NCA last year, both calling for legal access to encrypted data.

Husain challenged him to admit that he was seeking further powers for MI5, an assertion he deflected by noting that it was not for MI5 to decide these things. “We operate within a framework set by Parliament and independently overseen and as our capabilities move forward, the legislation is updated from time to time to ensure we are operating under modern, straightforward law that describes as fully and transparently as it can what MI5 does these days,” he said.

It is widely believed that the government is moving to reintroduce some variation of the Draft Communications Data Bill, the so-called Snooper's Charter, and this week the home secretary Theresa May held talks with the bosses of internet and social media companies, presumably to test the waters and pave the way.

Parker emphasised throughout the interview the need for the intelligence services to work within the framework of the law and with cooperation of the technology companies to collect the information that he believes is vital to keeping society safe.

“James Comey [director of the FBI] has referred a few times publicly to what he refers to as 'going dark' by which he means shifts in technology, particularly internet technology, and the use of encryption and so on creating a situation where law enforcement agencies and security agencies can no longer obtain under proper legal warrant the content of communications between people they have reason to believe are terrorists,” Parker said. “That is a very serious issue, it requires that there is a legal framework to authorise but it also requires the cooperation of companies that run services over the internet that we all use.”

He argued that technology companies have an “ethical responsibility” to cooperate with the authorities. “This question comes up in the realm of child sexual exploitation, terrorism, other forms of crime, and I think there's a real question about whether companies holding information of that sort – under what arrangements they should come forward to the authorities and share and report it,” he said.