Head of GCHQ Says U.S. Tech Companies Are Shielding Terrorist Activity

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Robert Hannigan, the new head of the GCHQ, is accusing tech companies of being “in denial” about the fact that criminals and terrorists are using their services to carry out crimes. Dennis M. Sabangan/EPA

In his first week in office, Robert Hannigan, the new head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)—the U.K.'s equivalent to the National Security Agency—is complaining that the large U.S. technology companies are becoming "the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists."

In a Financial Times op-ed published Monday, Hannigan accuses tech companies of being "in denial" about the fact that criminals and terrorists are using their services to carry out crimes. Picking up on an argument laid out by James Comey in his first major policy speech as FBI director just a few weeks ago, Hannigan cites these criminal activities as a reason tech companies and intelligence agencies need to have greater cooperation.

Hannigan's op-ed begins with a discussion of the newest Internet threat—the Islamic State, more commonly known as ISIS. As "the first terrorist group whose members have grown up on the Internet," he writes, ISIS uses new media with unprecedented ease. Not only does it use platforms well to convey its messages, it does so more openly and more securely than its predecessors.

"Where Al-Qaeda and its affiliates saw the Internet as a place to disseminate material anonymously or meet in 'dark spaces,' ISIS has embraced the Web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people, and radicalize new recruits," he writes. "The extremists of ISIS use messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and a language their peers understand.… ISIS also differs from its predecessors in the security of its communications."

Hannigan goes on to assert that U.K. intelligence agencies cannot tackle problems such as "violent extremism or child exploitation" without support from the tech companies that dominate the Web. "If they are to meet this challenge," he writes, "it means coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now."

In Comey's policy speech addressing Apple and Google's new default encryption feature for devices, the FBI director called on tech companies to reverse their policy or for Congress to pass a law that will allow law enforcement to access users' data.

Both Comey and Hannigan see no debate on this question. While Comey said, "I think that when you aggregate the risks, putting enforcement in the dark is not the way to go," Hannigan writes, "privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions."

Privacy advocates, however, consider such calls dangerous. "What should we do if the Saudi or Russian government also demanded information be handed over on the spot?" a senior executive at a U.S. tech group asked the Financial Times.

But Hannigan believes most civilians agree with him. "I suspect most ordinary users of the Internet…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," he writes. "I think those customers would be comfortable with a better, more sustainable relationship between the agencies and the technology companies."

Correction: The title of this article previously read "Head of British Intelligence Says U.S. Tech Companies Are Shielding Terrorist Activity." It now reads, "Head of GCHQ Says U.S. Tech Companies Are Shielding Terrorist Activity."