New GCHQ boss attacks tech companies for aiding terrorism
Tue 4 Nov 2014
In a stream of recent calls for cooperation from tech companies by security officials, the new director of Britain’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, has announced on his first day in the role that US tech companies are wrong to protect the privacy of their customers and products.
“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,” Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ, told the Financial Times.
Particularly targeting the likes of Apple and Facebook, Hannigan accused the tech giants of being “in denial” if they believed that the introduction of full encryption models wouldn’t aid terrorists in planning attacks.
He argued that British surveillance groups would be unable to “tackle these challenges at scale without greater support […] including [from] the largest US tech companies which dominate the web.”
US-based tech companies including Google have made it publicly clear that their encryption efforts are designed to protect the privacy of their customers following revelations that intelligence agencies were snooping their servers.
Despite reports from these leading digital companies that internet users want secure data, the GCHQ boss also claimed that the online community are asking for increased surveillance. He remarked that the majority of users “would be comfortable with a better and more sustainable relationship between the [intelligence] agencies and the tech companies.”
Hannigan’s position comes at a time of growing fear that terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), are developing increasingly sophisticated digital tactics, from advanced encryption to social media strategies over platforms such as Twitter and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
Hannigan warned that the free messaging service is integral to jihadist communications organising troops in Syria. He also claimed that YouTube is broadcasting propaganda for the groups and that intelligence bodies must act with the technology firms to tackle the spread of these materials.
The critique, unusual for a first day in the office to-do list, highlights the growing worry of the UK government and security services surrounding the spread of data and communications beyond their control.
Hannigan’s opinion matches other recent arguments by security officials, including calls from the FBI that technology groups need to provide access to their products for investigative purposes concerning cases of suspected terrorism, child abuse, and drugs trafficking.
Speaking out against Hannigan’s comments, the deputy director of Privacy International, Eric King said: “It’s disappointing to see GCHQ’s new director refer to the internet – the greatest tool for innovation, access to education and communication humankind has ever known – as a command-and-control network for terrorists.”
“Before he condemns the efforts of companies to protect the privacy of their users, perhaps he should reflect on why there has been so much criticism of GCHQ in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. GCHQ’s dirty games […] have lost GCHQ the trust of the public, and of the companies who services we use,” he added.
It is unlikely however that this latest tirade against internet privacy will influence any change in tech companies’ stance on surveillance – their sales of devices and cloud services at risk of severe damage if linked to mass surveillance programmes.