January 18, 2015 / 12:32 PM / in 3 years

Ex-spy chief says outdated UK anti-terrorism laws are not fit for purpose

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks is hampered by outdated laws that are “no longer fit for purpose”, a former MI5 chief said in an interview published on Sunday, as the government considers new powers to monitor the Internet.

The head of Britain's Security Service, MI5, Jonathan Evans (C), listens to Home Secretary Theresa May speak at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London November 3, 2010. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5 from 2007 to 2013, said laws should allow the intelligence services to properly monitor possible threats to national security.

Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris earlier this month, pushing enhanced anti-terrorism laws up Britain’s political agenda. Britain is on its second-highest threat level, meaning an attack is considered highly likely.

“The legal powers under which the police and security agencies access communications for intelligence or evidential purposes have become outdated; they were not designed for the current digital world,” Evans wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

“Technological changes mean that it is much harder than it was a decade ago for the police or security agencies to find out what terrorists or criminals are saying among themselves.”

Evans, who in December became a peer in Britain’s unelected upper house of parliament, cited Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat as examples of online communication channels which were difficult for intelligence agencies to access.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised laws giving greater access to online communication if he wins a May general election, but some of his rivals oppose the scale of his proposals.

Cameron, in Washington for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on security, said Britain faced a “very severe threat” of terrorist attack, according to an excerpt from an interview with U.S. channel CBS due for broadcast on Sunday.

He and U.S. President Barack Obama held two days of talks in Washington last week during which they vowed to take on the “poisonous ideology” of Islamic extremists. Intelligence agencies must be allowed to track militants online despite privacy concerns, they said.

They agreed to conduct cybersecurity war games and establish a joint “cyber cell” to prepare for and share intelligence on malicious hacking, weeks after Sony Entertainment was hacked in an incident the FBI has blamed on North Korea.

Britain also needs to confront an “appalling” spike in anti-Semitism, according to interior minister Theresa May who on Sunday gave a speech to the Jewish community designed to address their security fears after an Islamist gunman killed four French Jews in Paris.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond will meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other members of the international coalition fighting Islamic State (IS) militants in London on Thursday, Hammond told the Sunday Telegraph.

The meeting, to be attended by ministers from around 20 other countries, including Arab states, will discuss the coalition’s progress in tackling Islamic State, which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria, say British officials.

“It’s vital that we consider what more we can all do to tackle the issue of foreign fighters, to clamp down on ISIL’s (IS) financing, to step up humanitarian assistance and continue our co-ordinated military campaign,” Hammond said.

Editing by Jon Boyle

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