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 26.

    @ 16 "Emperor Wibble"


    That's what happens when you have a few refreshments on a school night.

    "Cluck, cluck, gibber, gibber, my old man's a mushroom, etc"

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    As soon as any security system is "tightened", the people you're trying to catch will be the first to find a way around it. This is exactly what happened with Silk Road and The Pirate Bay.

    Ironically, "old fashioned" ways of catching criminals, such as infiltration of crime rings, will always work. They require human error, which (thankfully?) will always be with us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The technology is there it will be used for whatever reason someone can apply it to. However the moral aspect which is lacking in political, commercial and military scenarios would suggest that the public were not monitored unless suspected of criminal activity. But the opportunity to gain information increases power over the 'victims'

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I completely agree that USA spied on Germany.

    Need I remind you lot that the Germans started not one, but TWO world wars. They simply cannot be trusted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Emperor Wibble
    2 Minutes ago

    Dear journalists - please give us the names of all your sources and contacts so that government agents can pursue and hound them.
    Tory MPs
    Edward Snowden, and he's already being pursued and hounded by a small vial of Polonium 210. And the partners of anybody who has spoken to Edward Snowden are also being targeted.
    Thanks for stopping by and +1ing yourself

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Tim has got it right.

    The deliberately built in back doors in our so called secure systems have handed organised crime, hackers and enemies useful spying and fraud tools.

    The average annual cost of resulting security problems (eg: MS Windows and others) to individuals and small business over a decade, certainly in our case is over 200 man hours per year.

    What the cost to the Nation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Edward Snowden for a Knighthood.
    We used to joke about communist country surveillance mow its here big time.

  • Comment number 19.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    If you transport information using a public line or an internet service you do so knowing this will not be secretive unless you password that information if that password is cracked then that too is bad luck because you knew before you transported this across such a transport medium that there is every likely hood it wont be secure argue as much as you like thats all there is to this

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    You can be certain of few things in life, however death, taxes and spying are amongst the exceptions.

    I have huge respect for Sir Tim but he is being naive in the extreme to believe that encyption cracking is going to stop. Until the human race achieves Utopia, spying in all its guises will continue, irrespective of how any of us feel about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    When is Snowden going to get his noble peace price?
    Is that like a Nobel Peace Prize? Or even better?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    A too simplistic view. The internet and encryption is equally a gift to crime; terrorists can coordinate as never before - are they not also guilty of betrayal of technology. So who protects us and how?

    Organised crime (eg drug cartels) and non-friendly nations have huge budgets and access to skills and computers needed to crack encryption. If our security agencies can do this so can they!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The security agencies are doing irreparable damage to our technology industries by weakening security?
    Its not the first time, the UK was once a world leader in rocketry, aviation, electronics, computing, & other industries. The security services hindered, damaged, delayed, destroyed research done here in the name of 'security'. The cumulative damage is so great the word 'Traitors' comes to mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Big brother is watching you.

  • Comment number 12.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Transcript from Select Committee

    "Confess! Confess! Confess!

    It doesn't seem to be hurting her, lord.

    Have you got all the stuffing up one end?

    Yes, lord.

    [angrily hurling away the cushions]: Hm! She is made of harder stuff! Cardinal Fang! Fetch...THE COMFY CHAIR!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I agree with Tim Berners-Lee. It is a betrayal of the trust we all have that out data is safe when held by big corporations. It also means that it becomes hypocritical for governments to criticise hackers when they are doing exactly the same thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Spying is the most important thing our military does.

    Without spying, the terrorists would have blown up London and probably the rest of the western world.

    Keep spying, keep phone tapping, keep bugging.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    When is Snowden going to get his noble peace price?

    He did the world (apart from the US and it's cohorts) a service, the inventor of the www clearly agrees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Tim's comments are naive at best. The work of the security services is important and right.

    The only practice that needs to be stamped out is commercial spying, including governments and security services giving information to their own nation's companies.


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