back to article Ex-MI5 boss: People ask, why didn't you follow all these people ... on your radar?

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington says complex communications "make it very difficult for our intelligence services" to keep pace against "hideous ideologies" whose sole aim is to kill, while cyber espionage is something "no one really knows effectively how to deal with". It was a bleak picture she painted of the threat …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Says it all

    Very revealing:

    'What are we going to do to ensure we still are needed and stop all our resources being taken away?'

    Not:

    "As a publicly funded agency, what should we do for the people?"

    Can I rephrase her statement as "this trough is almost empty - quick find another one"

    1. Allonymous Coward

      Re: Says it all

      I raised my eyebrows at that too. It could be argued that if your taxpayer-funded department no longer has a role, it should be disbanded.

      Sadly, organisation-centric (as opposed to, say, user- or public-service-centric) thinking like this seems to be pretty common in the public sector.

      Maybe she meant to say that MI5 was aware of new threats and knew they still had a role to play, but needed to make that clear to their political paymasters. Which is reasonable, and a lot more palatable than the words she actually used.

      1. ChrisB 2

        Re: Says it all

        You're right, that's what she should (rightly) have said.

        I've read her "novel" - she can't write/plot. I suspect her talents are more spying than comms and she thought that that plain speaking would make her appear more down-to-earth and non-politician like.

    2. Marcus Fil

      Re: Says it all

      In the period immediately after World War II the British Special Forces and SOE were wound down - the thought of semi-autonomous units who played cricket by different rules did not sit well with "upper management". It was quickly realised that actually some of their skills may yet come in useful in a colder war and the Special Forces were re-establlshed. Likewise people in MI5 probably knew the enemy may change clothes and motives, but there will always be an enemy and they had the necessary skills to counter. What Stella articulated, perhaps badly, is that the incumbent government, constantly juggling an insufficient budget, will quite often make short-sighted savings to the long term detriment of our nation.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Says it all

        'What are we going to do to ensure we still are needed and stop all our resources being taken away?'."

        Swordfish.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: What are we going to do to [...] stop all our resources being taken away? Swordfish!

          I wouldn't think that a 1930's era biplane torpedo bomber - or even a squadron of them - would require all that much in the way of resources.

          1. Toni the terrible

            Re: What are we going to do to [...] stop all our resources being taken away? Swordfish!

            I think he meant the fishy sort, sort of taste like Tuna I am told - the chicken of the sea

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Says it all

        But then how were they used? To aid BP in holding on to the Iranian oil fields by overthrowing that country's democratically elected government in 1953 and installing a king? The deep state in Britain has an even longer history than that in the US. They've consistently made the wrong decisions, based on what best served the elites at the top, exposing the public to more danger than they already were in. They doubled down on that in the War on Terror. Then people ask, "what is causing all these often home grown terrorists to become radicalized?" It's not the Internet. You could bar the public from all electronic networks and it wouldn't stop. Kids would still get radicalized. Through handbills, underground newspapers, even audio tapes (Iran's 1979 revolution). Behaving better would have consequences. It would rip the rug from under the feet of the bad guys and give those in the security services who actually care about protecting the public a fighting chance. If they were to start doing that, I don't think they'd have a budget problem.

        1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Not the Internet?

          Revolution requires radicalising the unradical, and in 2017 with control of digital media (as presumably in China) that can be prevented. Handing out your political message on cassette tapes today is ludicrous, and if you print handbills or a secret newspaper then the printer puts the date, time, and probably place of printing on every pages in nearly-invisible ink (pale yellow). And by now it probably also reads the thing you're copying and phones the government if it's naughty. So, yes, you can disguise all your plans as fruit cake recipes, but then you have to hand them out to the public and as far as they know it -is- a cake recipe. Maybe that's why "Great British BakeOff" is suspiciously popular......is that what they're up to? :-)

          1. LeahroyNake Bronze badge

            Re: Not the Internet?

            I don't believe the printer includes the date, time or location.

            What it does include on modern laser printers is the serial number encoded as a yellow dot pattern so that prints can be traced to the machine that printed them. You need a x25 magnification tool to see it. You may be able to get around this by printing in mono as the transfer belt is (usually on Ricoh devices) moved away from the colour units to reduce wear.

            The reason that this was implemented was to be able to trace fake currency to a specific printer. Other manufacturers can prevent copying of currency, i believe KM / Olivetti went down this route at one point. The rumors about it bricking the machine dissuaded me from giving it a go.

            Ink jet on the other hand, no idea as I hate the things.

            1. Peter X

              Re: Not the Internet?

              @LeahroyNake

              I don't believe the printer includes the date, time or location.

              Apparently, these days, they do... :-O (as well as serial no.)

              slashdot.org (how a few yellow dots burned the intercepts nsa leaker)

              I've linked slashdot simply because there's a bunch of links to useful articles from there.

              1. Ed_UK

                Re: Not the Internet?

                <<@LeahroyNake

                I don't believe the printer includes the date, time or location.

                Apparently, these days, they do... :-O (as well as serial no.)

                ...

                >>

                They have included date & time for many years.

                https://www.eff.org/press/archives/2005/10/16

                "We've found that the dots from at least one line of printers encode the date and time your document was printed, as well as the serial number of the printer," said EFF Staff Technologist Seth David Schoen.

                Example of cracking the code:

                https://w2.eff.org/Privacy/printers/docucolor/

            2. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Re: Not the Internet?

              "What it does include on modern laser printers is the serial number encoded as a yellow dot pattern so that prints can be traced to the machine that printed them. You need a x25 magnification tool to see it. "

              Yellow dots are highly visible as dark spots if you use a UV lamp. Not all printers do this stuff and some which do, have the option to disable printing the code.

            3. Toni the terrible

              Re: Not the Internet?

              You could use a fully mechanical printer of a John Bull Printing set.

          2. iron Silver badge

            Re: Not the Internet?

            @Robert Carnegie

            The only way you can envisage to produce handbills or an underground newspaper is a computer printer? That wouldn't even be in my first three options.

            If the Internet is to blame for creating terrorists then clearly there were no terrorists before about 1990. So no IRA, Hamas, PLO, Mujahadeen, etc? (forgive my awful spelling)

            1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

              Re: Not the Internet?

              A modern "photocopier" is basically a computer scanner with attached printer, and it can probably recognise seditious material, either now or soon. And that will include Up The Workers and Black Lives Matter. It also probably has Wi-Fi built-in and it probably will use that to alert the police.

              If instead you want to do your subversion of state power with a hand-built printing press, that's vastly more complicated to build than if you're just campaigning by using the printer at work or by posting videos on Google - which will get you caught pretty quick. Of course there's Wikipedia and How It Works to consult - oh, but they're surveilled too. As are 3-D printers to manufacture an unlicensed press, probably. Certainly now that I've suggested it.

              Actual terrorism is sufficiently exciting to be involved in that you probably can persuade a few suckers face to face to join in with you, but it doesn't achieve political change, which is what the establishment really fears. The establishment itself is very well guarded (an MP or a Congresswoman is not "the establishment": it doesn't mind losing a few of those). And having people frightened into giving up their liberty in exchange for apparent security is worth losing some civilians and pretending to care about them.

              1. Charles 9 Silver badge

                Re: Not the Internet?

                "If instead you want to do your subversion of state power with a hand-built printing press, that's vastly more complicated to build than if you're just campaigning by using the printer at work or by posting videos on Google - which will get you caught pretty quick."

                But not THAT much more complicated. Short runs could be done using a carved woodblock (What are you gonna do? Ban trees?), homemade ink (plenty to go around), and ubiquitous sheets of paper. The woodblock can be chopped up and burned if need be, the ink dumped, and the paper is innocuous enough.

          3. Potemkine Silver badge

            Breaking the thermometer doesn't stop the heat wave

            2017 with control of digital media (as presumably in China) that can be prevented.

            Control of digital media does not stop terrorists attacks, even in China

            A feeling of injustice (true or not), of being put aside often fuels extremism. Controlling information sources won't stop that, on the contrary, it will exacerbate these feelings.

          4. tiggity Silver badge

            Re: Not the Internet?

            .. You can print things without using an electronic printer you know!

            How do you think pamphlets used to be made (and often still are, as old skool printing cheap once you have the kit)

          5. paulc

            Re: Not the Internet?

            " and if you print handbills or a secret newspaper then the printer puts the date, time, and probably place of printing on every pages in nearly-invisible ink (pale yellow). "

            why the downvotes? This is true...

        2. Chris Miller

          @AC

          If you want to claim that terror attacks are the result of the West meddling in the Middle East (interference that I'm certainly not trying to argue a case for), how do you explain the attacks on (e.g.) Coptic Christians? What part of Irag had they invaded?

          1. Jim Birch

            Re: @AC

            ... and even if it was the result of meddling does that mean we should let innocent people die?

            Personally, I'm clear that we have foolishly and violently meddled with other peoples but this can't be considered as a simple cause/response. A Weaponised Loser thesis closer to the reality of this kind of attack.

            https://aeon.co/essays/humiliation-and-rage-how-toxic-masculinity-fuels-mass-shootings

          2. Toni the terrible

            Re: @AC

            They were christain and therefore must be crusaders QED

      3. PickledAardvark

        Re: Says it all

        The SOE employed men and women who were incredibly brave when operating outside the UK. Many agents were young people who had lived in the countries where they would be dropped and would be expected to pass as a local to Germans. They had a chance, however brief, to cause damage to the Nazi cause. The odds still were that they would be caught within weeks of arrival.

        In the cold war, SOE was irrelevant. The need to plant French, Italian and Dutch speaking agents in Europe diminished; different types of agents, perhaps. And whilst SOE might have known a few Czechs, Poles and Germans, their motivations needed to be understood. A different security service was required.

        ---

        When Peter Wright's Spycatcher was published overseas in the 1980s, it was banned in the UK. Many of us waited for a mate to lend their copy. And we were disappointed. Peter Wright seemed as mad as a box of frogs and his revelations were not taken seriously -- even the content about cryptography.

        Spooks of the past seem very strange to me. Their concepts of patriotism and loyalty are from another time. I've no idea where Stella Remington fits in.

        1. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

          Re: Says it all

          @PickledA

          "In the cold war, SOE was irrelevant."

          A long time ago I visited SAS HQ. We were shown into a room decorated with flags from all round the world; I assumed they were souvenirs of places they had visited. I recognised East Germany and Poland.

          1. PickledAardvark

            Re: Says it all

            The SAS is part of the British army. The SBS is part of the Naval Service, but not of the Royal Navy.

            The SOE was not part of any military or intelligence body. In theory, it was run by the Minister of Economic Warfare. In the politics of 1946, Minister of Economic Warfare might have been an unhelpful role.

            The cold war was very subtle, except when the other side had something embarrassing to say.

            1. Spleenmeister

              Re: Says it all

              The SBS are Royal Marines

            2. macjules Silver badge

              Re: Says it all

              SBS are a part of Royal Marines Commando which comprises of 4 arms: SBS, the band, 3 commando and the assault group IIRC.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Says it all

          One of the reasons that Peter Wright saw Spycatcher banned was because he revealed some fairly sensitive stuff. I know someone who worked for the security services at the time (something I only found out about when they retired) and they confirmed that he hadn't just crossed the line he'd borrowed a Ferrari and gone way beyond it. I own a copy of Spycatcher and the reason for my friend going pale when they saw it in my flat way back around Christmas in 1987 when round for a quiet drink. The telephone tap methods he talked about, "Special Facilities" were much harder to implement undetected when people knew what to look for.

          I looked at purchasing some flats in Notting Hill overlooking the Czech Embassy a fair few years ago. I asked about the history of them and why they were now on the market. The estate agent said he wasn't joking when he said they were very rarely available. MI5 had been using them round the clock until fairly recently to keep tabs on the denizens of the embassy.

    3. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: Says it all

      "'What are we going to do to ensure we still are needed and stop all our resources being taken away?'

      Not:

      "As a publicly funded agency, what should we do for the people?"

      Can I rephrase her statement as "this trough is almost empty - quick find another one""

      No. She said that they were dealing with terrorism as well, and that was obviously getting big during the 1980s, but people didn't know about it so after the end of the Cold War, there was a danger that MI5 would be defunded and all that expertise in plot disruption would be lost.

    4. Uffish

      Re: Says it all

      'What are we going to do to ensure we still are needed and stop all our resources being taken away?'

      Sounds like anyone in any business that is losing sales. Not a politically incorrect thought in itself.

      "As a publicly funded agency, what should we do for the people?" Do exactly what you are told to do by parliament. The last thing we need is a secret service that runs by it's own rules.

  2. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Change

    I've heard various politicians saying we need radical change... because once there is a crisis [there are calls for] radical change... but probably what we need is gradual change.

    No. What you really need is to be flexible and adaptable. It's much easier to cope with the unexpected if you're not set in certain ways.

    1. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: Change

      It's much easier to cope with the unexpected if you're not set in certain ways.

      Well yes... but... If there is no "established way of doing things" then there is a risk that things will be done in a haphazard way, and that is wholly undesirable. The trick is to be set in certain ways but have the ability to spot that a "certain way" may not be appropriate in some circumstances and thus might have to change quite quickly in a controlled manner.

      Easier said than done, I suspect.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Change

        Especially on a budget. It's basically a case of having to put the chips somewhere.

  3. andy gibson

    "[When I joined it] was like a John Le Carre novel, people were leaving packets of money in hollow trees in Hampstead Heath," she recalled."

    1. Is this still done?

    2. Where might these trees be?

    1. Martin Summers Silver badge

      "Where might these trees be?"

      Hampstead Heath?

      I think you'll have to visit them all but it's a start.

      1. Your alien overlord - fear me

        I thought it was a different kind of bloke walking around in dirty macs who frequented Hampstead Heath.

    2. twiss97

      Deposit 2.65 Bitcoin into Acct.# KGBNS@&556 and I'll email you a map....

    3. Paul Renault

      "Where might these trees be?"

      They're palm trees in the shape of the letter 'T' - Molloy

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "They're palm trees in the shape of the letter 'T'"

        Or a big double yer.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Coat

      " like a..Le Carre novel, people were leaving packets of money in hollow trees in Hampstead Heath,"

      Hmmm.

      So May is wrong.

      There really is a secret money tree.

      Who knew?

    5. 's water music Silver badge

      "[When I joined it] was like a John Le Carre novel, people were leaving packets of money in hollow trees in Hampstead Heath," she recalled."

      1. Is this still done?

      2. Where might these trees be?

      I was told that 'there isn’t a magic money tree' although recent fiscal policy seems hard to square with this

      :-(

    6. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. FuzzyWuzzys Silver badge
    Facepalm

    MI5: "We can't catch them and they keep getting away!"

    Gov: "Hang on, we'll get you more powers to access more people's info."

    MI5: "Now we can't catch them, there's too much information to sift through!"

    1. Peter2 Silver badge

      Gov: Would you like a bigger budget to process all of that information?

      Councils: And can we have it databased and available so we can check if people are really resident within schools catchment areas, and are putting the right things in the right bins?

      MI5: . . .

    2. Wensleydale Cheese Silver badge

      MI5: "Now we can't catch them, there's too much information to sift through!"

      Problem: We can't find the needle in the haystack

      Solution: Get a bigger haystack

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "At least with the IRA,... they were not anxious to kill a lot of people,"

    That's not what it seemed like at the time. MI5 weren't involved in day-to-day murder investigations so she might not have noticed.

    1. John Riddoch

      There were several bombs left by the IRA in public places where they warned the police in advance of the explosion so people could get out of the way. It still caused terror and awareness, but generally wasn't indiscriminate slaughter. Where they aimed to kill, it was generally targeted (generally, because there were civilian casualties), whether that be RUC, army, politicians etc.

      1. Rob Crawford

        Actually they had a habit of giving warnings that were crafted to move people closer to other other bombs which they neglected to mention to anybody

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        John, I worked in this area when the IRA were active. They sometimes gave a false warning so that people would go towards the site of the imminent explosion. Some thought that these were cock-ups, sometimes they weren't. AC, because I must.

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