Leaked document alleges MI5 struggled to keep up with data deluge

A leaked document allegedly from whistleblower Edward Snowden has detailed MI5’s struggle to keep pace with the amount of data it was generating at the start of the decade.

The document, published by website The Intercept, is labelled “UK secret” and dates from 2010.

It refers to a programme called DIGINT – for digital footprint – that the Security Service (or MI5) was allegedly running. The document stated that it was intended to provide information to the Treasury and Cabinet Office.

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According to the document, the idea of the DIGINT programme was to better collect and exploit intelligence generated by investigations of targets’ online presence, which was being generated in ever-increasing quantities.

“The digital footprint provides a rich vein of intelligence that is set to grow and cannot be ignored,” the document said.

However, it goes on to say that MI5 – which it said was the principal collector and user of digital information – was unable to use such data to its full potential because of the sheer volume being produced.

“[MI5] can currently collect…significantly more than it is able to exploit fully,” the document stated. “This creates a real risk of ‘intelligence failure’ ie from the Service being unable to access potentially life-saving intelligence from data it has already collected.”

The document also said that MI5 intended to extend its coverage, setting a target of “double what it currently collects” by the end of the 2010-11 financial year.

It said that the primary need was to develop technological capabilities and staff skills in order to improve the investigative value from the data it collects.

A second document, also published by The Intercept and dated later in 2010, said that “with the exception of the highest priority investigations, a lack of staff and tools means that investigators are presented with raw and unfiltered DIGINT data”.

This, it continued, means that material is not fully assessed because of the significant amount of time required to review it.

The second document said that the capacity of MI5 to maintain and develop collection capabilities was limited, and that there was an “inconsistent understanding” of those capabilities across different teams and individuals.

It outlined six business requirements, which included ensuring the workforce could keep up with the emerging threats and opportunities of the internet age, better exploiting existing intelligence and developing new collection mechanisms.

A spokesman for the Home Office told PublicTechnology it did not comment on leaked documents.

The Home Office declined to comment on whether MI5 had implemented any changes or improvements to its data collection and analysis processes since 2010.

The release of the documents by The Intercept was timed to coincide with MPs’ voting in favour of the Investigatory Powers Bill at its third reading in the House of Commons on 7 June, with 444 MPs in favour and 69 against.

The bill will now move to the House of Lords for its final reading.

However, Antony Walker, deputy chief executive of TechUK – the representative body for the UK tech industry – said that there were still concerns that the bill could “undermine the UK’s digital economy”.

“Unfortunately, companies are still in the dark as to how they will be affected by the unilateral powers the Bill currently affords,” he said.

“Work remains to be done in the House of Lords on a number of areas, not least ensuring appropriate international agreements are in place to guarantee safe and secure intelligence sharing.”


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