Equipment interference "has been instrumental in disrupting credible threats to life," documents claim.
Thames House, the MI5 HQ. Image: MI5
MI5, the UK's domestic spy agency, says it has "relied" on hacking techniques in "the overwhelming majority of high priority investigations" over the past year, according to a government document.
The document is a "factsheet" describing the UK's hacking powers, released as part of the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the nation's newly proposed surveillance legislation. It says that "equipment Interference," (EI) the UK government's term for computer hacking, is "the power to obtain a variety of data from equipment. This includes traditional computers or computer-like devices such as tablets, smart phones, cables, wires and static storage devices."
"[EI] has been instrumental in disrupting credible threats to life, including against UK citizens," the section on MI5 continues. However, those claims could not be verified by Motherboard. MI5 could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for the National Crime Agency, which has also been revealed to have EI capabilities, previously told Motherboard that "there is a range of capabilities and techniques available to the NCA."
EI can either be carried out by physically tampering with a person's gadgets, or remotely, the document continues. Approaches vary in complexity, with EI encompassing everything from using login credentials of a target to gain access to a computer, or "remotely installing a piece of software on the device."
The document claims that hacking may in some cases "be the only way to acquire intelligence coverage of a terrorist suspect"
The document claims that "the use of this capability by the security and intelligence agencies was avowed in February 2015 through a draft Equipment Interference Code of Practice."
There is already voluminous evidence that the UK's signal intelligence agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), breaks into the computer systems of targets. Motherboard previously reported that the National Crime Agency—essentially the UK's FBI—also has hacking capabilities.
The rest of the document, entitled "Factsheet—Targeted Equipment Interference," attempts to justify the use of hacking techniques in investigations.
"Equipment Interference is used to secure valuable intelligence to enable the Government to protect the UK from individuals engaged in terrorist attack planning, kidnapping, espionage or serious organised criminality." The document claims that hacking may in some cases "be the only way to acquire intelligence coverage of a terrorist suspect or serious criminal in a foreign country."
Interestingly, the document says that the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, a proposed piece of UK surveillance legislation, "will create a new power to require the assistance of CSPs where necessary, to give effect to equipment interference warrants." A CSP, or communications service provider, is a company that handles electronic information, such as a telecomm. It is unclear how CSPs are expected to collaborate with the authorities in this context.
In total, the document is vague regarding what EI actually constitutes. As for what information obtained from hacking can be used for, "material derived from equipment interference may be used in evidence," the document reads.