The new director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, has called for technology companies to co-operate in ongoing government attempts to combat and investigate online “terrorist” activity.
In a piece penned for the Financial Times, Hannigan, who only took over the role at the top of GCHQ on 24 October, said that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) terrorist group is “exploiting the power of the web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach”. He added that it is “the first terrorist group whose members have grown up on the internet”.
Hannigan compares ISIS to al-Qaeda which, he said, “saw the internet as a place to disseminate material anonymously or meet in ‘dark spaces'”.
Hannigan suggested that ISIS “embraced the web as a noisy channel”, carrying out activities such as using #worldcup and #ebola hashtags to “insert the ISIS message into a wider news feed”, leveraging an ability to “send 40,000 tweets a day” during the ISIS takeover of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, “without triggering spam controls”.
He also speaks of enhanced security capabilities for ISIS, app structures and mobile technology “adding extra layers of security” with freely available computer programs. “Without greater support from the private sector,” Hannigan writes, GCHQ, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service “cannot tackle these challenges at scale”.
Large technology companies, he continues, have now “become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals”, and this is a fact, “however much [technology companies] may dislike it”.
For GCHQ’s part, Hannigan writes how “intelligence agencies… need to enter the public debate about privacy”, and show it is “accountable for the data” it uses “to protect people”.
Just days ago, The Guardian exposed documents detailing how GCHQ monitors, without a warrant, communications obtained from foreign surveillance agencies in secret “arrangements”.
Privacy International issued a legal challenge against GCHQ’s alleged extensive secret surveillance practices earlier this year, following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations.