One of Britain’s highest-ranking intelligence officials on Tuesday castigated U.S. companies that dominate the Internet for providing the “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals” and challenged the companies to find a better balance between privacy and security.
Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed director of GCHQ, Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, also said that young foreign jihadis in Syria and Iraq had benefited from leaks by the former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden.
Hannigan’s harsh charges came in an opinion article published Tuesday in The Financial Times, a British newspaper. GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters, operates closely with the British domestic security service, MI5; the overseas intelligence service, MI6; and the U.S. National Security Agency.
Hannigan’s comments, calling for “a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens,” seemed to urge a reappraisal of the balance between civil liberties and national security.
“Privacy has never been an absolute right,” he said, “and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.”
He directed his remarks particularly at the Sunni militants of the Islamic State group who have spilled from Syria into broad sections of neighboring Iraq in an often-brutal campaign to create an Islamic caliphate.
The group, he wrote, “is the first terrorist group whose members have grown up on the Internet.”
“They are exploiting the power of the Web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach,” he continued. “The challenge to governments and their intelligence agencies is huge — and it can only be met with greater cooperation from technology companies.”
This is not the first time European government officials have asked some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Google and Facebook, to help in the fight against extremists.
In October, European government officials met with senior executives from several companies such as Microsoft and Twitter to discuss how terrorist groups were using social media networks to spread their messages across the Internet.
After the meeting, the companies and policymakers agreed to organize future discussions about how to handle the potential online threat, though no concrete steps were announced.
Technology companies, however, have previously been vocal that they comply with government demands to hand over information about their users only when they are mandated by court orders.
Twitter received more than 2,000 requests for information about user accounts from roughly 50 countries in the first six months of 2014, according to a company statement. The number of requests represented a 46 percent increase compared with the same period last year, and more than 60 percent of the requests came from the U.S. government.
In the past, al-Qaida and its affiliates, which have broken with the Islamic State, “saw the Internet as a place to disseminate material anonymously or meet in ‘dark spaces,’” Hannigan wrote, while the Islamic State “has embraced the Web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people and radicalize new recruits.”
Snowden, a former NSA contractor, who fled to Moscow from Hong Kong in June 2013, has since been granted asylum in Russia. His name has become a byword for the disclosure of secret materials, including extensive revelations about cooperation between GCHQ and the NSA.
In documents published in January, for instance, the two agencies were shown to be working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps.
The opinion article by Hannigan referred specifically to messaging and social media sites and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
“There is no need for today’s would-be jihadis to seek out restricted websites with secret passwords: They can follow other young people posting their adventures in Syria as they would anywhere else,” he said.
Hannigan called on the U.S. companies that operate these social media sites to cooperate more fully with intelligence and surveillance agencies as the more tightly regulated telecommunications companies do.
“I understand why they have an uneasy relationship with governments,” he continued. “They aspire to be neutral conduits of data and to sit outside or above politics. But increasingly, their services not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but are the routes for the facilitation of crime and terrorism.
“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. 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.”