Omand, who ran GCHQ from 1996 to 1997, was speaking during a Select Committee set up to scrutinise the ongoing draft Investigatory Powers Bill.
His comments were made in reference to a stateent to the committee by Dr Paul Bernal who cited numerous examples of how snooping powers can be exploited by government agencies, how metadata analysis is just as invasive as content collection and how mass data retention would make service providers a target for hackers.
Omand said: “[The examples] were very good ones of why digital mass surveillance is a thoroughly bad idea. Thankfully it doesn’t happen now and under the provisions of this Bill it couldn’t happen.”
His comments come amid a furore over domestic spying sparked by documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which have revealed details of the mass surveillance apparatus used by GCHQ, including programmes such as Tempora and XKeyscore.
Following the committee, Bernal, a lecturer in IT, intellectual property and media law at the university of East Anglia, told V3 that Sir Omand is applying a very narrow definition of what constitutes mass surveillance.
“Essentially, he seems to think that surveillance only occurs when human beings examine data. He does not believe that the gathering of data – and the holding of that data – ‘counts’ as surveillance, and neither does he believe that algorithmic analysis or filtering of that data counts as surveillance,” he said.
“If you understand that gathering of data is where surveillance starts, and automated analysis of data can be one of the most intrusive elements, then you can see that this Bill, as it stands, does enable mass surveillance.
“Surveillance, to Sir David Omand, only occurs after all that has happened, and individuals within GCHQ actually examine that data. This, unfortunately, bears very little resemblance to modern surveillance, or to the intrusion that happens right now.”