In an unusual step the new head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, has written an article accusing technology companies of aiding terrorism and failing to help with investigations. The article is entirely vague in its criticisms of the tech companies, giving little detail of what information GCHQ is failing to receive from the tech companies.
The article in the Financial Times states that “the largest US technology companies that dominate the web” were “in denial” about the roles they played in helping terror groups evade intelligence agencies. He went on to argue that these websites had become the “command and control networks of choice” for terrorists.
What is concerning is that there is no indication that the tech companies already assist law enforcement and intelligence agencies at all. When in fact there are official treaties (the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) and voluntary schemes with individual companies. For instance, in August 2013 Facebook published its first transparency report. It showed that the UK requested data on 1,975 occasions, of these only 32% were rejected. As well as this in 2012 UK law enforcement bodies made the most requests for information from Skype, nearly double the amount made in Germany.
Clearly, if UK agencies want information about individuals that they believe pose a threat to national security there is a proper process to follow and if this process is followed the data will be released. What is more urgent is the need for greater Government transparency around the requests it makes. It should not be up US companies to publish data on how our law enforcement bodies use their powers.
One glimmer of hope however is that Hannigan appears to agree that there is a need for transparency, stating that “we (GCHQ) need to show how we are accountable for the data we use to protect people, just as the private sector is increasingly under pressure to show how it filters and sells its customers’ data.”
More information about the way in which surveillance powers are used is something that Big Brother Watch regularly called for. We have published a paper (PDF) on how the Government can release more information without damaging national security. Last week Big Brother Watch released a report, looking at the Police’s use of directed surveillance under RIPA. It showed the urgent need for greater transparency and accountability.
Without more information the debate around privacy and security will be limited to unhelpful interventions such as this one, which focus on the wrong targets and do nothing to properly inform the public.