GCHQ Gets Involved in Mundane Surveillance Matters

GCHQ detected a potential pre-publication leak of a Harry Potter book, and alerted the publisher.

Is this what British national intelligence is supposed to be doing?

Posted on April 19, 2016 at 1:39 PM • 34 Comments

Comments

stineApril 19, 2016 1:45 PM

Is this what British national intelligence is supposed to be doing?

No, unless the individual was not a citizen of the UK and was already under surveilance for something else more sinister for which they've also been charged.

On the other hand, it could be that someone at GCHQ downloaded the torrent and then used the seed list to get a promotion.

de La BoetieApril 19, 2016 2:13 PM

Pass the sick bag: "We don't comment on our defence against the dark arts."

They're blithely trampling on our freedoms and present it as a joke.

Mind you, it may inadvertantly be reflecting one of the real purpose of the mass surveillance - as @martin points out, follow the money. Except normally, it's institutionalised insider dealing with buddies in the City and Wall St.

RyanApril 19, 2016 2:19 PM

Isn't GCHQ supposed to protect the interests of Britain, including their economic interests? When I heard about this recently, my first reaction was "Gee, that seems like they're not really doing their jobs," but then I thought about it a little and realized that Harry Potter is huge for Britain-- it brings tourists and money in, and introduces the rest of the world to (at least some) British culture. I think GCHQ is doing their job here, just as the NSA is doing its job by intercepting messages and communications outside the United States. We may not be fans of it, but they're doing what they were created to do.

Edward "Brill" LyleApril 19, 2016 3:04 PM

A hundred years ago, Britain was the greatest kingdom the world had ever existed, at least by size of it.

And now, this is where they are.

Not that colonization was good.


You actually rarely see Mi6 come up on the "colossal fuck ups how did they ever do this" radar much. There are other intelligence agencies like that. What they all have in common is they are mature agencies.

They are not a few decades old. They are over a century, often are centuries old. With no breaks or complete overhauls.


So, they don't have such a powerful tendency to engage in incredibly stupid programs. Like the CIA and Cuba and Castro. MK Ultra. Black Sites and torture. Or, Hoover's "cointelpro". Or many of his other heinous practices.

The reality is they are young and really don't know what the hell it is they should be doing.


When I first heard of this case, I thought, "they really are looking for something to do". And they really do not know what they should be doing.

Their "brilliant" "psy ops" program is an excellent example of that. Why are they even trying to get into psy ops? And if they really are, why, on earth, do they not consult their own military and intelligence agencies that actually have professional experience in that field? Instead of just winging it?

And what is the effect? GCHQ runs massive psy ops social media bots, and troll online meeting spots of all kinds, on all manner of subjects. Where do they do this, and who do they do it against? Against democracies. They literally have created systems designed to thought police democracies. As if they read about the ten cent army, or Russia's troll program, and went - lightbulb! - "great idea".


Sorry, but there is an incredible amount a technical, signals ops agency could be doing.

But, you know, organizations tend to not do what they should be doing when they do not have the slightest clue as to what they should be doing, at all.


Mi6 should take them over, IMO.

Or maybe they should become a division with a British military intelligence division.


They are dangerous to the stability of democracies as they are, doing more harm then good.

ThomasApril 19, 2016 4:11 PM

@stine
> No, unless the individual was not a citizen of the UK and was already under surveillance for something else more sinister for which they've also been charged.

I don't buy that.

Time and again we've had excuses along the line of "we'd love to do less trampling on your civil rights, but that would potentially reveal details of ongoing investigations and then the terrorists win!".

Now they risk revealing details of an ongoing investigation (i.e. the identity of the target) because... book profits are more important than civil rights?

Did the national security agencies become the investigative arm of the content cartels?

Maybe this is an Al-Capone thing. I look forward to international terrorists being extradited and incarcerated for illegal distribution of "My Little Pony: The Movie".

deLaBoetieApril 19, 2016 4:25 PM

@Ryan - that's all very well if the economic well-being of the UK was all they were doing.

But as part of their intelligence-sharing deals, they pass access to the FULL data sets to the US (and others), including via XKS. This will include economic data including business secrets, IP, M&A and other information of UK companies, which WILL be exploited to the UK's detriment. That also risks a disastrous loss of confidence in markets as institutionalized insider-dealing damages equality of information.

As a small-scale example, I have developed patent and intellectual property in the UK, and GCHQ's illegal data collection and sharing may well have harmed my business. I have no redress for that. Do I feel safer as a business because of them? Ha!

In addition, if they were actually interested in UK economic interest as opposed to rent-seeking behaviors, they would have focused on cyber-defense rather than the indiscriminate attack they are trying to justify with their cutsy dark arts drivel.

jaysonApril 19, 2016 4:49 PM

@Ryan


Isn't GCHQ supposed to protect the interests of Britain, including their economic interests?...We may not be fans of it, but they're doing what they were created to do.

Your definition would therefore includes every economic activity and anything of conceivable interest. They could likely do their job better if it weren't defined as surveillance of everything and had limits.

NetApril 19, 2016 7:50 PM

There is a lot of guesswork into GCHQ playing a /serious/ role here.

I would guess that one of their staff in an unofficial (ie not specifically directed) capacity was browsing some P2P or user forums and found a copy that looked legit. They then took it internally and raised it up the line.

TatütataApril 19, 2016 8:11 PM

Mission creep?

I bet that they sent their advance copy to the cousins for "analysis".

I thought that the spooks' "business" was to overhear Cindy and Jennifer discussing their crush on Kevin and exchanging pictures of ponies, all in the name of "national security".

But when it comes to get advance warning of, say, Putin's intentions for the Ukraine and elsewhere, they seem to be abject failures. Wasn't that the original reason for which these agencies were created?

There is undoubtedly a prodigious amount of traffic exchanged between tax dodgers^W optimisers and outfits such as Mossack Fonseca transiting in clear through British or US facilities.

Why are the Panama Papers then such a surprise?

If GCHQ can contact Mrs. Rawlings about a matter which doesn't concern the security of the state, then surely they could tip Inland Revenue or the Exchequer through ministerial channels...

Evan HarperApril 19, 2016 8:12 PM

The sourcing for this story is very thin. It all comes from comments Nigel Newton, the head of Bloomsbury, made on a podcast in Australia - see http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2016/04/06/4437991.htm (no transcript, but the discussion of it begins 32m 30s in.) Not only could the whole thing easily be exaggerated or confabulated, but even if it's basically true, there's no indication that GCHQ actually devoted resources to this.

DanielApril 19, 2016 8:16 PM

Let me play the Devil's Advocate and respond with a resounding YES. Let's look at the facts. The first fact is that a great deal of the UK's status in the world today is built around its artistic creativity whether that be the music of the Beatles or the writings of Rowling. For the record, she has sold more books worldwide than the Beatles have sold albums. Further, if the role of the intelligence services is to protect the national interests, then cultural property must be included in that definition. If there was a terrorist plot to blow up Stonehenge GCHQ would want to stop it. This might not be quite the some magnitude as a bomb plot but it certainly seems right up their alley. Rowling is a national treasure, seems smart to me they would want to protect her.

Nick PApril 19, 2016 9:18 PM

Yes, it was appropriate behavior if there were no specific laws against it. I'd go further to say protecting economic interests of UK is British intelligence's primary goal. Britain has been imperialist nation pulling shit on other countries for economic/political gains and justifying it internally with propaganda. To minimize risk and maximize opportunities, they definitely need a spy agency supporting that. Same as our CIA except maybe more active and effective due to legal differences.

On the side, they might try to stop this or that threat to people's lives in UK or many eyes alliance. Some threats in the UK are more numerous and easier to stop, though. ;)

SchneieronSecurityFanApril 19, 2016 11:41 PM

What about electronic media such as film, video, television, music, etc.?

PeteApril 20, 2016 3:43 AM

I think it has more to do with the fact that Harry Potter is a UK multi-million pound franchise and it's in the UK Gov' interest to prevent a loss.

WilliamApril 20, 2016 6:51 AM

Economic Espionage is specifically included in GCHQ's legal mandate so this is not mission creep but actually part of their official duties.

Dirk PraetApril 20, 2016 6:59 AM

Is this what British national intelligence is supposed to be doing?

On their website, GCHQ claims their mission statement is to protect the UK from threats to national security, including cyber attacks, international and domestic terrorism, organised crime, and the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

But that's for public consumption only. What they actually do is provide SIGINT of any kind to the British government, armed forces and LE. Although the leaking of a new Harry Potter manuscript may be argued to be a high-profile case of IP theft, I hardly see how this can be considered a matter of national security in any way. I guess it is just part of a PR campaign.

kiwanoApril 20, 2016 8:59 AM

There's a big part of me that's inclined not only to believe the personal-torrent-of-agents theory, but that whoever sent along a page to Ms. Rowling to ask "should someone go after this guy", was actually using that question to ask "should I start reading this". It's really not much of a stretch to imagine some wanker with a security clearance hoping to drop spoilers on the neighbours before the release date, just so to feel special.

albertApril 20, 2016 9:47 AM

So will Harry be joining GCHQ? It looks like they could use his talents....

. .. . .. --- ....

MikeApril 20, 2016 10:49 AM

So GCHQ spotted a rip-off book that looked legit, that might have been hacked, but they didn't know if it was real or not so they asked the publisher.
If this really had been part of protecting UK Plc interests, then they would have devoted some serious hacking power to finding out without asking.

They couldn't be arsed. But they were happy to ride a little bit of free publicity for Bloomsbury that had the side effect of making them look like a fun workplace to 14-yr old future employees.

ChristianApril 20, 2016 1:05 PM

If you were working at the GCHQ/NSA and with a few clicks may have been able to look into any pc...

Would you check out what G.R.R.M. is currently writing?
Power corrupts... and in the end people are people...

GweihirApril 20, 2016 3:40 PM

They are testing the waters. Secret agencies feeding law-enforcement is a fascist thing to do and completely incompatible with any sane form of the rule of law because it negates the possibilities for citizens to defend themselves against false accusations. It is also any authoritarians wet dream.

I believe they are trying very carefully and with a case that looks harmless to test out how far they can go. This is extremely dangerous and just shows (again) that all kinds of police-powers must be severely and diligently limited to keep a society free.

PetterApril 20, 2016 4:55 PM

This is what happens when the leash is not tight enough on the government and their intelligence gathering agencies.

Edward "Brill" LyleApril 20, 2016 5:23 PM

@William:

Economic Espionage is specifically included in GCHQ's legal mandate so this is not mission creep but actually part of their official duties.

That is what GCHQ calls "economic espionage"? Sad.

It would be counterintelligence work focusing on economic intelligence. At that, it should be not something done, clearly. Like a number of GCHQ's embarrassing programs.


Someone might argue, "the Harry Potter franchise is a billion dollar industry". It might bring in about 1 billion per year to England. 2 billion yearly revenue is about the cut off point at the Fortune 1000.

(That was my guess, but I confirmed it quickly enough: http://www.statisticbrain.com/total-harry-potter-franchise-revenue/ and considering Harry Potter came out first in 1997.)


Economic espionage usually is focusing on far more important targets. To say the least.

Critical economic targets are not "children's book authors".


Really, though, this is just "yet one more example" of how GCHQ is new, noobish, clearly is not working with more experienced agencies on any meaningful level, and in general, they just really do not know what they should be doing.

Sadly, governments can get away with that far, far longer then businesses can.


But, this does also mean, they are going be providing very poor intelligence product to their superiors. Especially contrasted against England's excellent foreign, domestic, and military intelligence services.

That is their economy.

And my guess is, they suck really bad.


Mi6 should take them in as a division and manage them.


Nick PApril 20, 2016 8:11 PM

@ Christian

Nah, more like Sony Pictures. I hear they have a lot of valuable I.P. and little security. ;)

Utter Martyr SemmitchApril 21, 2016 2:30 AM

I inquired into the leak, after I was hit in the face by a blast of cold stinking water .... it had come from upstairs, where Mainchance Chaney has just recently taken up residence. Evidently the waste water's not connected properly - it gouged out a nasty hole in wall.

It was then that I noticed a pile of books he'd brought back from somewhere in Asia, concerning a character Horrer Patty by name. A misspeling of Harry Potter, no less.

If GHCQ's supposed to be safeguarding the economic interests of the Untied Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by reporting on copyright infringements and suchlike, they could improve their batting average by blindfolding themselves and facing the wicket, not the bowler.

(Isn't it bizaare, during the Cold War, we were all over the samizdat phenomenon, arguing this was a responsible response to the censor. Now we are the censor, and samizdat's just so evil.)

Who?April 21, 2016 9:35 AM

@ Dirk Praet

On their website, GCHQ claims their mission statement is to protect the UK from threats to national security, including cyber attacks, international and domestic terrorism, organised crime, and the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

If you see latest Harry Potter book as [another] literary nuclear weapon then GCHQ has protected the UK from a wide spreading of it.

At least GCHQ can claim now they have stopped a threat. Even if only one against the interests of a single person in the UK, it is more than NSA can claim. I am not saying security agencies have not achieved goals, but industrial espionage against allies is not something these agencies should be proud.

broApril 21, 2016 12:38 PM

In related news...

British spies tapped surveillance database to send a birthday card
New documents reveal spies' casual approach to citizens' personal data
http://www.theverge.com/2016/4/21/11476968/uk-spy-agencies-bulk-personal-datasets-privacy-international

The papers were obtained following a legal challenge by Privacy International, and show spies' often casual approach to proper data-handling protocol. "We’ve seen a few instances recently of individuals crossing the line with their database use," reads one letter circulated by the Secret Intelligence Agency (SIS) in 2011. "Looking up addresses in order to send birthday cards, checking passport details to organize personal travel, checking details of family members for personal convenience."

COYNE TIBBETSApril 21, 2016 11:29 PM

Was this the future we anticipated? Where the companies make the laws and the armed forces enforce the laws for the companies?

Clive RobinsonApril 22, 2016 3:37 AM

@ Coyne Tibbets,

Was this the future we anticipated?

Most would say not, but then they are not the psychopathic corporate executives and lawyers.

We have been played like marionettes, stupidly seduced by free market nonsense, so that we have sold our liberty for meaningless baubles and the ephemera of endless nonsensical dialogue of sound bites devoid of meaning and content from talking heads working for their puppet masters.

We have been warned about both the price of liberty and the dangers of the MIC, yet have not heeded them, is it any wonder that corporates should gladly walk the same path?

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