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Politics vs. Tech: A backlash is brewing against the UK's new spy chief

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 4, 2014
Following Robert Hannigan's forthright comments yesterday, the tech industry and the political sphere seemed more divided than ever.

Yesterday I wrote about how I hoped that an article in the Financial Times, written by the UK's new director of GCHQ, might bring the technology industry

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and surveillance authorities closer together on the discussion of how best to monitor terrorist activity online – despite a couple of inflammatory phrases penned by Robert Hannigan.

Whilst the article said that technology companies and web giants were “in denial” about the misuse of their services and that they have become the “command-and-control networks of choice” for terrorists, Hannigan did also call for a more open, public and frank discussion about how industry and government could work together to monitor information online.

Unfortunately, despite what I'd hoped, it is evident from the fall-out that the technology camp and the political sphere are more divided than ever on the issue. Largely thanks to Hannigan's comments that implied that the likes of Facebook, Twitter and What's App weren't grasping the severity of the issue, it appears the technology industry has taken offence.

And upon reflection, who can blame it. If Hannigan does want an open discussion about how authorities can better work with technology companies, implying that said companies are, well, stupid, probably wasn't the best approach.

Julian David, chief executive officer of techUK, an organisation that represents the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Google, has said that Hannigan was “wrong” to suggest that the companies that dominate the web are in denial about the role that they play. He siad:

To ensure public confidence, both in the digital economy and our democracy as a whole, any obligations placed upon technology companies must be based upon a clear and transparent legal framework and effective oversight rather than, as suggested, a deal between the industry and government.

Robert Hannigan is right to highlight the threats that all democratic societies face as terrorist groups become more effective in both manipulating new media to promote their ends and using security and encryption to make their operations opaque to our security services.

However, he is wrong to suggest that this is an issue that technology companies are in denial about. As we made clear in our recent tech manifesto, technology firms which we represent have important legal obligations to work with government to help keep the UK safe and secure which they take extremely seriously.

Equally, Facebook took the opportunity yesterday, perhaps by coincidence, to release its latest Government Requests Report, which highlighted that it has seen an increase in government requests for data and for content restrictions since its first report in August last year. For instance, in the first six months of 2014, governments around the world made 34,946 requests for Facebook data – an increase of about 24% since the last half of 2013. During the same time, the amount of content restricted because of local laws increased approximately 19%.

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For the UK specifically – over the period January to June in 2013, the UK government made 1,975 requests to Facebook for data, of which 68% were successful in some respect. Over the same period this year, this figure has increased to 2,110 requests, of which 71.68% were somewhat successful. The Facebook data indicates that the UK government's requests for information aren't in fact getting any worse – something I'm sure Facebook was keen to highlight.

Facebook's deputy general counsel, Chris Sonderby, said:

More broadly, we continue to work with our industry and civil society partners to push governments for additional transparency and to reform surveillance practices necessary to rebuild people’s trust in the Internet. While we recognize that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we believe all government data requests must be narrowly tailored, proportionate to the case in review, and subject to strict judicial oversight.

A separate industry group also took the opportunity to chip in yesterday to dismiss Hannigan's comments as “wrong and ill-judged”. However, the Internet Services Providers' Association did call for better consultation on how systems could be improved open. It said:

“For this debate to proceed properly, the security services, law enforcement and Government have to be more open and transparent about existing capabilities. The mischaracterisation of the Internet as a ‘command and control centre’ for terrorists is wrong and ill-judged.

The Snowden revelations changed the landscape: existing oversight mechanisms were found to be not fit for purpose and there was a lack of accountability. This has to be the starting point for reform.

If greater or clearer powers are needed, the case needs to be made via thorough consultation and legislative proposals should be placed in Parliament for further scrutiny.”

Former digital government tsar, Baroness Lane Fox, has also weighed in on the debate and said that Hannigan's article in the Financial Times was the “most fabulous PR job for day one” of his new job. However, despite being complimentary of his media handling, she also commented that his tone and approach was probably less than conducive to a constructive debate. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Lane Fox said:

This reactionary and slightly inflammatory comment doesn’t help the overall picture when we should be having a considered debate.

I would not want GCHQ to come and rummage in my front room and that is how I feel about whatever device I am using, We have to have a debate about how we handle of the complexities of this brave new world.

However, on the other side of the fence Hannigan's political chums are rallying behind him and are expressing their support for greater cooperation between government agencies and technology companies. This support is coming from the very top of the chain, where David Cameron's official spokesperson has said that the Prime Minister believes that companies “need to do more” to combat the abuse of web-based technologies by terrorist groups.

Equally, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee and former foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, expressed his agreement with Hannigan

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and said that some of the technology firms had an “amateurish” approach to monitoring criminal behaviour. He told BBC Radio 4's World at One show:

I think they should recognise that they perhaps have a greater duty than many of them acknowledge to monitor what is happening on their systems.

They do that to a certain degree - if they hear of evidence that may imply that a serious crime is about to be committed, they often do inform the police. But their monitoring systems seem to be fairly amateurish in comparison to what they could be.

If you build into your systems methods that prevent the intelligence agencies, even when they have lawful authority, from being able to find out what's actually being said from one terrorist source to another, that is making the problems of protecting the public infinitely more difficult than they would otherwise be.

Finally, Ed Richards, the chief of the UK's communications and media regulator Ofcom, also expressed his support and called on the tech companies to be socially responsible. He said:

I think it’s fair to say that there are social responsibilities that come with a media that are as prevalent and significant as those social media [companies] have become.

It’s absolutely right to ask what society should expect of those organisations as responsible companies with an impact on society.

My take

Hannigan's article has had the opposite effect of what I'd hoped. Instead of sparking a constructive discussion, it has turned into two groups that appear to very much be on opposite sides of the fence, pointing the finger at one another.

One step forward, three steps back...

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