GCHQ chief says internet companies are ‘in denial’ about role they play in terrorism

Kashmira Gander — The Independent Nov 4, 2014

GCHQ: the British government's listening post in Cheltenham. Click to enlarge

GCHQ: the British government’s listening post in Cheltenham. Click to enlarge

The new head of Britian’s GCHQ intelligence agency has demanded that internet firms open themselves up to intelligence services, and has claimed that privacy is not an absolute right.

Accusing internet companies of being “in denial” of the role they play in terrorism, Robert Hannigan said they had become the “command-and-control networks of choice” for a new generation of criminals and extremists, such as the militant group Isis which has swept across Iraq and Syria and is well known for its use of online propaganda.

Citing the group which calls itself the Islamic State (IS), Hannigan said it did not show the beheadings of hostages including British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning in recent videos as proof of extremists’ increasing expertise in online propaganda.

“By self-censoring they can stay just the right side of the rules of social media sites, capitalising on western freedom of expression,” he said.

But a campaign group said it was “wholly wrong” to suggest that internet firms do not help investigators.

The debate around states surveying personal communications came to the fore when US whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the secret mass data collection programmes run by the US and UK authorities.

In an article for the Financial Times, Hannigan argued that it must be easier for security and intelligence agents to police online traffic, and said that users did not want their social networks used “to facilitate murder or child abuse”.

“GCHQ and its sister agencies, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support from the private sector, including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web,” he wrote on his first day in the post.

He went on to write that while he understood why “[internet firms] have an uneasy relationship with governments” and aspire to be “neutral conduits of data and to sit outside or above politics”, they not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but facilitate crime and terrorism.

“However much they may dislike it, they have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us,” he said.

Mr Hannigan conceded that GCHQ had to be accountable for the data it uses to protect people and was “happy to be part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age.

But he went on to add: “Privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.

“To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behaviour on the internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in denial about its misuse,” he argued.

But Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “It is wholly wrong to state that internet companies are failing to assist in investigations.

“The Government and agencies have consistently failed to provide evidence that internet companies are being actively obstructive.

“These companies have consistently proved through their own transparency reports that they help the intelligence agencies when it is appropriate for them to do so, which is in the vast majority of cases.

“Public debate on this issue would make the country stronger and more unified, yet we have so far failed to achieve this in the UK. Perpetuating falsehoods about the nature of relations between internet companies and the intelligence agencies is certainly not going to help,” she added.

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