Cyberspook Tomlinson Speaks His Mind

ROME (05/24/2000) - Western intelligence agencies face little difficulty in intercepting Internet communications, but analyzing all of the traffic is another matter, according to Richard Tomlinson, a former officer of Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI6.

Tomlinson has undertaken a five-year cyberwar against his former employer after being dismissed -- he insists unjustly -- in 1995. He joined the Secret Intelligence Service in 1991, after gaining a degree in aeronautical engineering at Cambridge University, and was posted under cover to Moscow, the Balkans and the Middle East.

In an effort to force the British authorities to grant him a hearing before an industrial tribunal over the circumstances of his dismissal, Tomlinson threatened to post a damaging account of his time at MI6 on the Internet, releasing it to thousands of viewers unless he took regular steps to keep the information secret. He is also suspected of having posted a list of 116 names of alleged MI6 officers on a Web site a year ago.

Tomlinson spent six months in a British prison after he was convicted of breaching the Official Secrets Act by sending a book proposal to an Australian publisher and revealing secret information -- including an alleged British plot to murder Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic -- to the press.

Tomlinson denied responsibility for publishing the MI6 officers' names and said his threat to lodge a damaging memoir in the recesses of cyberspace had also been a bluff, which he now regrets. But the battle to gain a hearing by an independent tribunal continues to be the main focus of his life.

"I feel a sense of injustice every waking minute and a sense of frustration that I can't bring this to the negotiating table," he said, speaking at a seaside bar in central Rimini, the Adriatic beach resort where he is studying Italian and enjoying the cheap Internet and mobile communications available in Italy.

"Technically it's easy to gather information, but you need human minds to process it. There just isn't the time," he said.

"With people like me, they undoubtedly look at all my e-mail. They probably have three or four people looking at me," Tomlinson said of his former employers. "They can't crack PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) without a huge amount of effort. Using it automatically makes one suspicious. I use it to correspond with half a dozen people -- it affects the way you deal with people if you know what you are writing is being read by someone else."

If he didn't use PGP, the secret services might not have to confiscate his personal computer so often, Tomlinson said.

Few people use the encryption programs on Microsoft Outlook, because they know Microsoft Corp. gave the escrow key to the U.S. government, he said.

"They want the writers of PGP to give up the key, but then other programs will come along," Tomlinson said. "You can't defeat encryption. It's something the intelligence services have got to learn to live with. They will never defeat it. That's why it's so senseless to spend a fortune snooping on the Internet."

The British government announced last year that it intends to create a US$ 30 million specialist code cracking unit to monitor Internet traffic as part of the fight against crime and terrorism. Under the plan, one in 500 telephone connections to Internet -- 20 times the European average -- would be monitored, according to published reports.

Tomlinson doubts that crime fighting is the real motive.

"It's really the intelligence services that are the driving force behind these initiatives, not the battle against child pornography," he said. When he worked for the organization, MI6 was actively recruiting information technology specialists. "But they command such high salaries they tend to bust the pay structure," he said.

He contends that he has been the victim of his former employer's cyber-countermeasures. His computer was infected by a virus, which corrupted all his files, some months after it was confiscated by the French secret service, he claims. On May 18 his apartment in Rimini was raided by Italian and British police, who confiscated all of his electronic equipment, from his laptop to his stereo and all his CDs.

"They even took away the remote control of the television," he said.

His colleagues who have remained in MI6 now face a dilemma: whether to remain faithful to their special relationship with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or to accept increasing integration with their European allies.

"MI6 is used as a leg into Europe for the CIA. Everything the British do goes straight to the Americans, because the Americans are so powerful. If not, the Americans could withdraw the satellite information that MI6 can't afford to do without," he said. "No intelligence service in the world can afford not to have contact with the United States. They are head and shoulders above the rest because of their electronic gizmos."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about Cambridge UniversityMicrosoftPGP

Show Comments

Market Place