Facebook, Twitter are command and control networks for terrorists: UK intel head

US-based social media have become "command-and-control networks" for terrorists and criminals, the new head of Britain's GCHQ said.

US-based social media have become "command-and-control networks" for terrorists and criminals, and tech companies are in denial about their misuse, the new head of Britain's electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ said.

Writing in Tuesday's Financial Times, GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan said British intelligence agencies know that ISIS extremists use messaging services like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to reach their peers with ease. He said spy agencies need to have greater support from the US technology companies which dominate the Web in order to fight militants and those who host material about violent extremism and child exploitation.

"However much (tech companies) may dislike it, they have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals." he wrote.

He also wrote that it was surprising that ISIS was able to post videos, share tweets, etc without facing any censoring from the social media website. He notes in his piece, "Their ability to send 40,000 tweets a day during the advance on Mosul without triggering spam controls, illustrates their ease with new media."

Hannigan also wrote about how 'Snowden-approved' techniques of encrypting smartphones and mobiles had made it easier for ISIS terrorists and thus they are a much stronger challenge to security agencies than al-Qaeda ever was. He added that foreign fighters armed with these encryption programs, apps, etc have made it much easier for ISIS.

He added that it was time while it was fair to expect to intelligence agencies to be a part of the privacy debate and showcase how they were protecting people, "privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions."

According to Hannigan, technology companies have gone in a state of denial over the misuse of their platforms by terrorists and that a deal between government agencies and technology companies is needed soon.

Social media companies have not yet responded to Hannigan's comments. Twitter declined to comment on the story. Facebook also had no immediate comment on the same as well.

Meanwhile, he has faced criticism for his comments. Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online privacy group that is partly funded by tech companies, told BBC radio that intelligence agencies' "powers are already immense. I think that asking for more is really quite disingenuous."

The head of techUK Julian David, which is leading industry group tech UK representing 860 companies, also criticised Hannigan's piece. According to this report in The Telegraph, Julian David, chief executive officer said that Hannigan was "wrong" to say that tech companies were not aware of the use of their technologies by ISIS and other groups.

He added that the correct approach was not "deal between the industry and government," but via a "clear and transparent legal framework and effective oversight."

Hannigan also faced criticism from the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA). The report quotes an ISPA spokesperson as saying, "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.”

Hannigan's piece comes at the same time as Facebook release its government requests report. According to Facebook, "In the first six months of 2014, governments around the world made 34,946 requests for data — an increase of about 24 percent since the last half of 2013. During the same time, the amount of content restricted because of local laws increased about 19 percent."

In United Kingdom, Facebook got 2,110 and it complied with close to 71 percent of the requests. In India, the company got a total of 4,559 requests and it complied with a 50 percent of these requests. Facebook notes that in India they restricted access in India to a number of pieces of content (4960) on requests of law enforcement officials and the India Computer Emergency Response Team under local laws prohibiting criticism of a religion or the state.

While Hannigan is not wrong to point out the efficiency with which ISIS is using the Internet, to say that social media is a haven for terrorists seems like a stretched point. Also no debate on security can go ahead without looking at user privacy as well, which as the Snowden revelations showed has been repeatedly violated by government agencies.

With inputs from Associated Press

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