Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee criticises spy agencies

Sir Tim Berners-Lee Sir Tim Berners-Lee said important issues had been raised by recent leaks

The British computer scientist who created the world wide web has said encryption cracking by UK and US spy agencies is "appalling and foolish".

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told the Guardian that the practice undermined efforts to fight cybercrime and cyberwarfare.

He called for a "full and frank public debate" on internet surveillance.

It comes as a parliamentary committee has quizzed the heads of the UK's spying agencies - GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 - together in public for the first time.

Security weakened

Sir Tim said the system of checks and balances to oversee GCHQ and its US counterpart the National Security Agency (NSA) had failed.

Details about intelligence work carried out by the agencies and reported in the Guardian have been leaked by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor.

Sir Tim said the agencies had weakened online security by cracking the encryption employed by internet users to protect their data privacy. He also said it was a betrayal of the technology industry.

Official role of UK's spy agencies

  • Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ): Safety and security of the UK's cyber connections and infrastructure
  • Security Service (MI5): Protection of national security against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage
  • Secret Intelligence Service (MI6): Collects Britain's foreign intelligence

Source: GCHQ, MI5 and MI6

"Whistle-blowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role in society," he said.

"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," he said.

Sir Tim said media coverage of the Snowden leaks "has been in the public interest and has uncovered many important issues which now need a full and frank public debate".

Meanwhile a group of Conservative MPs has urged the Guardian to take responsibility for the security implications of reporting the information and "act accordingly".

In their letter, 28 Tory MPs said publishing the leaks in such detail "runs the risk of compromising the vital work of the institutions, processes and people who protect the safety of this country".

They asked the newspaper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, to discuss with the intelligence services the implications for national security that publication would have, and be explicit about any information they have released that could threaten the safety of intelligence services personnel.

'Significant step'

Highlighting security risks that might occur if information intended for journalists fell into the hands of terrorists or "hostile foreign powers", the MPs also urged the paper to be open with the government and security agencies about exactly what information it had shared, and with whom.

How intelligence is gathered

How intelligence is gathered

"We are asking you to do no more than to share with our intelligence services, the very people who protect the freedoms which the Guardian champions, that which you have already shared freely with international bloggers and journalists who have no concept of the UK national interest," they said.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has questioned GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban, MI5 director general Andrew Parker and MI6 chief Sir John Sawers.

Mr Parker took over as head of the security service MI5 earlier this year. MI6 is charged with gathering intelligence and GCHQ with monitoring communications.

Intelligence chiefs have given evidence to the committee in private for many years.

The session was shown on the BBC News Channel, with a short time delay to prevent anything that might endanger national security or the safety of those working for the agencies being broadcast.

The ISC, made up of senior MPs and peers, said the committee meeting was "a very significant step forward in terms of the openness and transparency of the agencies".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    They going to spy Get used to it You don’t code messages tough luck You don’t password documents tough luck You don’t scramble voice mail tough luck You don’t use firewalls tough luck You don’t use virus checkers tough luck You don’t organize your data tough luck Youyou don’t backup tough luck You don’t learn how to write software tough luck if you don’t bother also tough luck

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    It's hard to get people interested in this general topic - I think people struggle to see how much reputation and actual damage is being done by the behaviour of GCHQ here. Lobban talked about finding the needle in the haystack - if you stopped looking at the *entire* haystack you may actually find the needle. Fundamental failure of smarts by GCHQ. Also they are patently operating outside the law.

  • Comment number 284.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    thats what you get for shafting us I dont feel sorry for some of them at all Its not as if we didnt warn you we did !! we asked you to do this that and the other There was a reason for this Tough luck If you choose not to listen thats you problem I gave up with this country long time ago We are still learning Thankyou !! bye bye have a nice day

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    And if you dont mind Im aslo going to add to this You sat on your backsides for years and years doing nothing whilst the rest of us listened regardless of whether we could complete studies or afford them and we continued to learn , learn, leran, learn even when sick , unemployed , So Its not our problem If you had have listened we could have helped you You decided not to listen to us Bad luck

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    237. Sally the Rothbardian
    1 HOUR AGO

    Even the defender of the left the Guardian newspaper web page had 14 trackers on it so don't kid yourself or any one else, you can't stop the info gathering because everyone is doing it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Communications companies should relocate to international waters and route traffic via satellite directly to customers. With all infrastructure outside of government territory those companies couldn't be strong armed into handing over information.
    Laser pin pointing could be used as a secure way to occasionally download one-time-pad which would allow for uncrackable standard communication.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    "We have a basic right to privacy.
    Edward Snowden deserves better than exile from his home."

    Snowden was not exiled - he defected. To putinesque Russia where he's already been employed.

    But he's welcome to return to US any time he wants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    Correct Secretbanker Neither have businesses Neither has the public which is why this country is falling on its backside Dare I say this down to your very own failure in the education system and your non co operative attitudes In other words failing to communicate All down to your very own countries snobbery , failure to recognise that certain standards had to be met and of course greed

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    All for the spying agencies, properly regulated, to have the ability to evaluate meta-data &, if necessary, content when it's suspicious. Clearly, the Internet would otherwise be used by very nefarious people for many illicit purposes, many of them highly damaging not just to a country's interests but also to their people. However, I am always reasonably circumspect in what I commit to any media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    We have a basic right to privacy.
    Edward Snowden deserves better than exile from his home. He deserves to be welcomed and congratulated. I hope he finds somewhere to settle permanently. He did the world a service in exposing the spying. If the US didn't want to be in this mess, they shouldn't have spied on everyone in the first place!

  • Comment number 275.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    We have been sleepwalking in a surveillance society for some time. It is about time the matter was sorted. The law has not kept pace with the technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    #271 Cyr

    "If humanity does not learn to use wisely what it is gifted, then it will face an uncertain future."

    --All to lose and only more of the same to win --is certain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    @everyone who keeps posting iterations of this

    "Nothing to hide nothing to fear"

    This is taken from a Joseph Goebbels Nazi propaganda speech. And gets used a lot today.

    If you're going to use fascist propaganda as a basis of an argument for mass surveillance of innocent people (with special scrutiny on muslims/jews potato/patato) maybe time to check if that ever got out of hand in the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Geniuses and visionaries such Sir Tim create, other humans then misuse what they create.

    If humanity does not learn to use wisely what it is gifted, then it will face an uncertain future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    Your kidding yourselves when you place that much power in the public sector you will always be watched no matter how big how small you will always be watched like I said get used to it Thats all there is too it

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    No matter it is the web they use as one of many instruments.With simple thing like pencil you can right or poke some one.It is like this.But to protect one's country and ruin other'e countries is not right.spy agencies do good for their own country and ruin other countries should not be good job for world.If they harm the harmful then it is good.Criminals should be chased and finished by them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    255.smart asses

    Vast majority of Iraqis were killed by - Iraqis

    During worst death rate while UK/USA were there, the murder rate in South Africa was more, UN figures, yet South Africa was deemed safe enough to hold FIFA W Cup.

    Next up, is the race for nano technology & it is vital to know anyone with nano capability, hence spying on other governments is valid

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    #263 Thought


    -- What bothered me was the deliberate omissions by the questioners.

    They either get the international mess under control --or they will have to begin charging democratic opposition --with Sedition.

    --That has already been been suggested by some --directed at the ´Guardian´


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