14/09/2016 17:36 BST | Updated 14/09/2016 17:52 BST

Privacy Groups Say GCHQ's 'Great British Firewall' Could Threaten Civil Liberties

The intelligence agency promises privacy will be hardwired into plans.

Privacy groups have spoken out against GCHQ’s plans for a “Great British Firewall” to protect major businesses and their customers from hackers.

The agency’s cybersecurity chief hopes internet service providers (ISPs) like BT and Sky will want to sign up to the scheme, circumventing regulation.

But privacy advocates have criticised the proposal on the grounds that it could enable GCHQ staff to access internet records without official sign-off.

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is being debated in parliament, ISPs will have to record which websites customers visit.

But as it stands GCHQ staff won’t be able to access these records without official approval from specific managers. 

However, Privacy International (PI) technologist Christopher Weatherhead told HuffPost that the plans could offer GCHQ a way to sidestep the safeguard:

“By requiring ISPs to filter DNS records, the same information about what websites people visit online is revealed.” 

Barry Batchelor/PA Archive

GCHQ is seeking to allay civil liberty concerns by promising to “hardwire” privacy and citizen choice into the programme.

Unveiling the proposal in Washington yesterday, Ciaran Martin, GCHQ’s cyber security chief, said: “Consumers must have a choice. Any DNS filtering would have to be opt out based.”

But PI’s Weatherhead said: “It remains unclear if customers, or even ISPs would be able to opt-out of such a system if it were to come into force.”

The scheme has also been criticised for providing government with the technical capability to censor certain sites. 

Michael Harris, an adviser to an umbrella group for privacy organisations called Don’t Spy On US, told the Guardian

“We are seeing things floated in speeches without being thought through or without considering the long-term consequences.”

Martin didn’t elaborate on the criteria for determining whether a website should be censored by the firewall, plans for which are in their infancy.

Explaining the motives for the initiative, he said: “It’s possible to filter offensive content. It’s possible to block malicious content. So why aren’t we doing more of it? Well, in the UK now, we’re really trying,”

The “flagship project” will scale up domain system filtering so that companies like BT and Sky can stop customers from being exposed to known malware and bad addresses.

The number of national security level cyber incidents doubled last year to 200 a month, GCHQ’s Martin revealed.

The phrase “Great British Firewall” was coined by British news organisations following Martin’s speech, which was his first public appearance since he was appointed head of GCHQ’s new National Cyber Security Centre