GCHQ calls out terrorism-friendly tech giants

4 Nov 2014

The new head of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) Robert Hannigan has claimed tech giants unwittingly help foster terrorism around the globe.

In a bid to call IT giants back into the fold following the creation of a chasm between state security and web independence after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about PRISM, the US’ electronic surveillance programme, Hannigan claims in The Financial Times “that some technology companies are in denial” about their misuse by certain terrorist groups, most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

ISIS’ use of social media has become a story in itself of late, with its Twitter campaigns in particular catching ‘those who protect’ off guard. Clever use of hashtags and piggybacking on global and/or regional stories has helped the group gain popularity, or perhaps better put, infamy, online.

Given this, GCHQ, charged with protecting UK citizens from attacks of all sorts, is facing a constantly evolving and moving threat. Indeed Hannigan makes the point in his article that ISIS may well be the first terrorist organisation to have its followers grown up entirely in the age of the internet.

“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 says, without naming any tech giants in particular.

Hannigan goes on to presume that the majority of “ordinary” internet users are of a different mindset to social media giants. “They have strong views on the ethics of companies, whether on taxation, child protection or privacy; they do not want the media platforms they use with their friends and families to facilitate murder or child abuse.”

Hannigan claims the internet grew out of the values of western democracy, not vice versa.

UK laws

The western democracy that Hannigan writes of surely includes the recently pushed through Data Retention and Investigatory Powers laws in the UK, that went from announcement to enactment in eight days, causing consternation across many facets of the state’s democracy at the time. Many facets, that is, except the political side of things, where everyone, for once, was in peaceful agreement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has rejected the notion that an agreement between companies and governments was needed. As reported in The Guardian, Jillian York, director of international free expression at EFF, said a special deal isn’t necessary.

“Law enforcement can conduct open-source intelligence on publicly posted content on social networks, and can already place legal requests with respect to users,” she said.

“Allowing governments special access to private content is not only a violation of privacy, it may also serve to drive terrorists underground, making the job of law enforcement even more difficult.”

Hannigan took over the role as head of GCHQ recently and this article has put his thoughts on internet use firmly on the map.

“Privacy has never been an absolute right,” claims Hannigan, coming from as partisan a position as physically possible. “For our part, intelligence agencies such as GCHQ need to enter the public debate about privacy. I think we have a good story to tell.”

It’s probably time to tell it.

GCHQ image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic