'UK spies are planning to increase their use of bulk equipment interference, as the range of encrypted hardware and software applications they can't tap into increases.
Equipment interference (EI) – formerly known as computer network exploitation – is the phrase used for spies poking around in devices, like phones or computers, and media like USB sticks.
It allows them to gather up info they claim would otherwise be "lost" as it can't be obtained other ways – crucially, it means they can access encrypted data they cannot grab via the more traditional route of interception.
At the time the Investigatory Powers Bill was passing through Parliament – it was signed into law in 2016 – EI hadn't been used, but it was already seen an alternative to bulk interception.
However, it was expected to be authorised through targeted or targeted thematic warrants; as then-independent reviewer of terrorism David Anderson wrote at the time, "bulk EI is likely to be only sparingly used".
Since then, though, GCHQ's use of these bulk powers has "evolved", according to a letter (PDF) to members of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, by security minister Ben Wallace.
During the passage of the Investigatory Powers legislation, he said, the government anticipated bulk EI warrants would be "the exception", and "be limited to overseas 'discovery' based EI operations".
But with encryption increasingly commonplace, the spies want the exception to edge towards becoming the rule.
"Since the passage of the Bill, the communications environment has continued to evolve, particularly in terms of the range of hardware devices and software applications which need to be targeted," Wallace said.'
Read more: UK spies: You know how we said bulk device hacking would be used sparingly? Well, things have 'evolved'...
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