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U.K. spy chief: Internet giants are helping terrorists

An Aerial View of GCHQAn Aerial View of GCHQ
GCHQ headquarters in Gloucestershire, England. Photograph by David Goddard--Getty Images

Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are helping terrorist groups like Islamic State to promote themselves, the new head of the U.K.’s electronic surveillance agency claimed Tuesday.

GCHQ director Robert Hannigan wrote in an article for the Financial Times that social media and other companies were “in denial” about the degree to which their technologies are being abused by terrorists and other criminals, and called on the companies to agree new ground rules for working with governments to stop them.

“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,” Hannigan wrote. “If they are to meet this challenge, it means coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now.”

Hannigan’s call comes after the stunningly effective use of social media in recent weeks by Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, both to spread fear among their opponents and–a source of increasing concern for countries like the U.K.–to recruit new fighters among Muslims in the West.

IS’s savvy with social media is illustrated by the fact that during its advance on the Iraqi city of Mosul, its adherents were managing to send 40,000 tweets a day without triggering spam controls. Similarly, by using hashtags such as #Ebola and #WorldCup, the group has managed to insinuate its propaganda into the field of vision even of passive news consumers, Hannigan argued.

However, any calls for increased powers to police social media are bound to face tough political resistance from Europe in particular, where the public has been angered by revelations of widespread U.S. (and U.K.) snooping on ordinary citizens.

Hannigan acknowledged that government agencies need to do a better job of making their case.

“We need to show how we are accountable for the data we use to protect people, just as the private sector is increasingly under pressure to show how it filters and sells its customers’ data,” Hannigan said. “But privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.”

He lamented that the revelations, such as those by ex-NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, had led to criminal groups adding layers of extra security to conceal their business and location from counter-terrorism agencies.

“Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states now come as standard,” he said. Many are openly advertized as “Snowden-approved”, he added.