UK spy chief: Tech companies are ‘in denial’ about their role in extremism

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The head of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency said that some large tech companies provide a major platform for extremist activity, and that these companies are “in denial” about extremism.

GCHQ’s newly appointed director Robert Hannigan said that giant tech companies like Facebook and Twitter should allow intelligence agencies greater access to information on users to better combat terrorism.

Hannigan said that the Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp companies are in denial about how their services are being used as “the command and control networks of choice for terrorists”.

In an opinion piece for the Financial Times, Hannigan said that while terrorists using the internet is not a new phenomenon, the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group is taking the use of the internet to a new level.

“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 radicalise new recruits,” he said.

“They are exploiting the power of the web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach. The challenge to governments and their intelligence agencies is huge — and it can only be met with greater cooperation from technology companies.”

Hannigan goes on to argue that tech companies must recognise the threat posed by certain people using their services, and that the relationship between governments and such companies must evolve to face this threat.

“I understand why they have an uneasy relationship with governments,” he continues. “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.”

Hannigan argues that “privacy has never been an absolute right”, and that privacy concerns should be used an as a reason for “postponing urgent and difficult decisions”.