Google and Facebook ‘aiding terrorists,’ says new GCHQ chief

The big tech companies must work with governments to stop terrorists, says head of UK spy agency

Computer hackers
(Image credit: Patrick Lux/Getty Images)

The incoming head of Britain’s electronic spying agency has accused some of the world's biggest technology companies of becoming the "command and control networks of choice" for terrorist networks.

GCHQ director Robert Hannigan said that companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google were "in denial" about how terrorists use their services.

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times, Hannigan said that in the past extremists used the internet to share information discretely, but now groups such as Islamic State (IS, also known as Isis) are beginning to use pubic messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to disseminate propaganda and spread terror as loudly as possible. "Isis has embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself," Hannigan said.

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He said that for intelligence services to be able to effectively fight terrorist groups online, they would need greater support from the world’s biggest tech companies.

"GCHQ and its sister agencies… cannot tackle these challenges without greater support from the private sector, including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web," he said.

Hannigan added: "However much they may dislike it, they have become the command and control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals."

GCHQ needs to lead the debate on privacy not just follow it, Hannigan said: "GCHQ is happy to be part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age. But privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions."

Some privacy advocates disagreed with Hannigan’s assessment of how the internet should be policed. The deputy director of Privacy International, Eric King, told The Guardian: "It’s disappointing to see GCHQ’s new director refer to the internet – the greatest tool for innovation, access to education and communication that humankind has ever known – as a command-and-control network for terrorists."

Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at Electronic Frontier Foundation, rejected Hannigan’s call for closer collaboration between spy agencies and private organisations: "A special 'deal' between governments and companies 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," York 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."

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