The new chief of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, has created quite a buzz around an article that he penned for the Financial Times this week. In the piece, Hannigan, who only took over the role at the top of GCHQ on 24 October, called for technology companies to co-operate in ongoing government attempts to combat and investigate online “terrorist” activity.
He 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 believes that internet firms like Twitter and Facebook have become “the control and command networks of choice” for terrorists, and suggested that the US firms are “in denial” about the problem.
Two of Computing’s journalists assess Hannigan’s comments and question whether he was right or wrong to call for more help.
Sooraj Shah – Why Robert Hannigan is RIGHT
US technology companies should work more closely with intelligence agencies to prevent terrorists from misusing their services. The trouble is, in light of the Snowden revelations, they’re currently doing the opposite and trying to distance themselves from the likes of GCHQ and the NSA in an attempt to allay their custmers’ privacy fears.
But the truth is most UK citizens are not that bothered about state-sponsored snooping and almost take it for granted. The depiction of state surveillance in the 1998 film Enemy of the State seemed rather preposterous at the time; now it feels run-of-the-mill.
The huge problem is that aside from Generation Z, many people value their security more than their privacy. Would you rather that GCHQ didn’t find a terror threat before it happened, just so no one knows what websites you’re looking at? Keep in mind that many of the brands and companies that people trust – the likes of credit card firms and supermarkets – have a wealth of data about you, and use it to their advantage already.
GCHQ would say that “if you have nothing to hide then why are you worried?” – and despite the question being a logical defence of its actions, the questions directed back at the spy agency would be: how much data does the agency really need, and how is it going to use that data? With schemes like the NHS’s controversial care.data programme and HMRC’s plans to sell taxpayers’ financial data to private companies, the government clearly sees enormous commercial potential in data – but it needs to be more transparent about how it expects to use such data.
Those calling for the culture of secrecy at GCHQ – what former home secretary David Blunkett called “old-fashioned paternalism” of saying “we know, but you mustn’t” – to be ended, must understand that there has to be an element of secrecy at GCHQ to ensure that the UK is kept safe.
So perhaps the answer for Hannigan and GCHQ is, instead of asking tech giants and internet companies to help, first let GCHQ help itself by explaining in-depth what it expects to do with data from the likes of Facebook and Google, and how it believes it will ensure that private data that is not suspicious will not be looked at or used. Surely that is the minimum GCHQ can offer if it really needed more help?
Peter Gothard – Why Robert Hannigan is WRONG
It’s clearly been a heck of an induction period for GCHQ’s new boss, one of Robert Hannigan’s first tasks being an attempt to whitewash a security department that’s finally been caught with its pants down.
His piece in the FT can be described as feeble at best, and borderline Orwellian, at worst. To summarise, Hannigan’s message to the country’s citizens and the world’s tech companies – days after GCHQ is now proven to be lifting and processing private information about the populace – is: “Isis uses Twitter! Panic in the streets!”
Isis – or Al Qaeda, or Eurasia, or Eastasia, or whatever shadowy-force-beyond-your-comprehension-that’s-out-to-get-you is popular this week – is Hannigan’s digital bogeyman du jour.
It’s apparently using hashtags such as #worldcup and #ebola to “create a jihadi threat with near-global reach”. On Twitter. Isis can send out 40,000 such terrifying tweets a day, apparently.
Twitter users create around 500 million tweets every 24 hours on average – and growing – so let’s put ISIS’s tweeting into perspective: it’s like one man sitting in a stand at Anfield occasionally shrieking “Death to the infidels!” over the top of 59,999 other spectators blasting out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the top of their lungs for 90 minutes.
Hannigan even falls back on the very Daily Mail practice of implicating that other mysterious force that perverts “the youth of today” – videogames.
“The videos they post of themselves attacking towns, firing weapons or detonating explosives have a self-conscious online gaming quality,” he wrote. I can’t even begin to work out what that actually means.
And yet, while GCHQ continues to effectively steal the data of the people it’s meant to serve, Hannigan has the brass cojones to accuse large technology companies – in the most thinly-veiled way – of aiding and abetting terrorism. Yes, it’s Twitter’s fault, Google’s fault and especially Microsoft’s (presumably, after it led the charge to sue the NSA over its spying) fault for letting this “jihadi threat” perpetuate.
“Terrorists” are using software platforms, apps and social media networks to spread their message, writes Hannigan, and it’s companies’ duty in the face of this “violent extremism” to monitor everything, repeal free speech and – oh, I’m sure – hand over their data willingly (or unwillingly) to whatever shady government department asks for it. In the name of “freedom”, if you will.
Unsurprisingly, no representatives of these companies have commented yet.
Genuinely, what is the most troubling issue here? A group of fanatics chucking a few thousand tweets around, or a government agency that has worked in cahoots with other international agencies – that have lied publicly about their actions – on secretly storing and crunching data about citizens (not to mention the companies Hannigan now implicates), for years, for reasons it still can’t fully and precisely explain?
Until GCHQ is clear as to how scooping up our phonecalls, emails and web histories is actually solving any actual crimes against our society, and is precise about the true “terror” that Isis can spread around the world by attaching nonsense to hashtags, I’d urge the industry – and the public at large – to focus on the main issue: our governments are lying to us, or otherwise seriously betraying our trust.
Robert Hannigan is now trying to excuse those lies with hackneyed, old-fashioned scare tactics. Rather than simply trying to pass the blame on to others, GCHQ should sort out its own house.
What do you think? Is Hannigan right? Or is he deluded? Let us know in the comments below.