Top British Spy Warns of Terrorists’ Use of Social Media
One of Britain’s highest-ranking intelligence officials on Tuesday castigated the giant American companies that dominate the Internet for providing the “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals” and challenged the companies to find a better balance between privacy and security.
The statements were made by Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed director of GCHQ, Britain’s electronic intelligence agency. They were among the most pointed in a campaign by intelligence services in Britain and the United States against pressure to rein in their digital surveillance after disclosures by the American former contractor Edward J. Snowden.
Mr. Hannigan’s statements were among the most critical of American technology firms by the head of a major intelligence agency; the accusation went beyond what United States officials have said about Apple, Google and others that are now moving toward sophisticated encryption of more and more data on phones and email systems.
But the companies, saying they are responding to demand from their users, show no signs of backing down. Recently the chief executive of Apple, Tim Cook, said governments that want data should deal with the users of the technology, not with the providers of the hardware and services. Brad Smith, the general counsel of Microsoft Corporation, told a Harvard Law School symposium on Tuesday that, if anything, companies like his “will move to strengthen encryption,” and require governments to get court orders if they want data.
Mr. Hannigan, in an opinion article on Tuesday in The Financial Times, singled out the Islamic State, the radical group also known as ISIS and ISIL, as one “whose members have grown up on the Internet” and are “exploiting the power of the web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach.”
In a speech two weeks ago, the director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey, said that the “post-Snowden pendulum” had “gone too far.” On Monday, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, took a less confrontational approach, telling students and faculty members at Stanford University that “a fundamentally strong Internet is in the best interest of the U.S.”
Increasingly encrypted products and services are “a challenge,” Admiral Rogers said. “And we’ll deal with it.”
But he also pushed for better sharing of data between the intelligence community and private technology companies. Moves to set up a formal information-sharing system have stalled in Congress in the face of objections from the private sector.
“It is unrealistic to expect the private sector to withstand the actions of nation-states,” Admiral Rogers said. “I think it is also unrealistic to expect the government to deal with this all by itself. ”
Technology companies, which harvest customer data for commercial uses, reacted cautiously on Tuesday, generally seeking to avoid any role that would make them agents of government intelligence-gathering. “It’s such a slippery slope with these types of requests,” said Stefan Weitz, director of search at Microsoft. “If you say yes to one request, more will inevitably start to come in. At what point do you stop?”
Technology companies do cooperate with governments in some ways. In Britain, government agencies have regular contact with Google and its YouTube subsidiary, and can get expedited responses when they raise concerns about terror recruitment videos or images of beheadings, often resulting in quick action to take down the content in question.
But Mr. Hannigan’s comments, calling for “a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens,” seemed to urge a further review of the balance between civil liberties and national security. Britain, like other European nations, has been increasingly concerned about online recruitment of potential fighters from within its borders by radical groups.
Mr. Hannigan’s statement drew opposition from civil liberties groups.
“It is not for the head of a powerful intelligence agency to wave his arms and expect citizens of a democracy to gladly give up their rights,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research group in Washington. “His responsibility is to protect their freedoms.”
GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters, operates closely with the British domestic security service, MI5; the overseas intelligence service, MI6; and the United States National Security Agency.
“Privacy has never been an absolute right,” Mr. Hannigan wrote, “and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.”
Technology companies have been vocal in insisting that they comply with government demands to hand over information about their users only when they are mandated by court orders.
Facebook said in a company blog post that requests by governments for user information were rising steadily, by about a quarter in the first half of the year over the second half of last year.
“In the first six months of 2014, governments around the world made 34,946 requests for data,” the post said. “During the same time, the amount of content restricted because of local laws increased about 19 percent.”
Twitter received more than 2,000 requests for information about user accounts from roughly 50 countries in the first six months of 2014, according to a company statement. The number of requests represented a 46 percent increase compared with the same period last year, and more than 60 percent of the requests came from the United States government.
In the past, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, which have broken with the Islamic State, “saw the Internet as a place to disseminate material anonymously or meet in ‘dark spaces,’ ” Mr. Hannigan wrote, while the Islamic State “has embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people and radicalize new recruits.”
The opinion article by Mr. Hannigan referred specifically to messaging and social media sites and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
“There is no need for today’s would-be jihadis to seek out restricted websites with secret passwords: They can follow other young people posting their adventures in Syria as they would anywhere else,” he wrote.
Source: The New York Times / Nov. 4, 2014