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<nettime> GCHQ Director: The web is a terrorist's command-and-control network of choice

November 3, 2014 6:03 pm

The web is a terrorist's command-and-control network of choice

Robert Hannigan

People do not want social media platforms to facilitate murder, writes
Robert Hannigan

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is the first terrorist
group whose members have grown up on the internet. 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 co-operation from technology

Terrorists have long made use of the internet. But Isis's approach is
different in two important areas. 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.

The extremists of Isis use messaging and social media services such as
Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and a language their peers understand.
The videos they post of themselves attacking towns, firing weapons or
detonating explosives have a self-conscious online gaming quality. Their
use of the World Cup and Ebola hashtags to insert the Isis message into
a wider news feed, and their ability to send 40,000 tweets a day during
the advance on Mosul without triggering spam controls, illustrates their
ease with new media. There is no need for today's would-be jihadis to
seek out restricted websites with secret passwords: they can follow
other young people posting their adventures in Syria as they would
anywhere else.

The Isis leadership understands the power this gives them with a new
generation. The grotesque videos of beheadings were remarkable not just
for their merciless brutality, which we have seen before from al-Qaeda
in Iraq, but for what Isis has learnt from that experience. This time
the "production values" were high and the videos stopped short of
showing the actual beheading. They have realised that too much graphic
violence can be counter-productive in their target audience and that by
self-censoring they can stay just the right side of the rules of social
media sites, capitalising on western freedom of expression.

Isis also differs from its predecessors in the security of its
communications. This presents an even greater challenge to agencies such
as GCHQ. Terrorists have always found ways of hiding their operations.
But today mobile technology and smartphones have increased the options
available exponentially. Techniques for encrypting messages or making
them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated
criminals or nation states now come as standard. These are supplemented
by freely available programs and apps adding extra layers of security,
many of them proudly advertising that they are "Snowden approved". There
is no doubt that young foreign fighters have learnt and benefited from
the leaks of the past two years.

GCHQ and its sister agencies, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service,
cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support from the
private sector, including the largest US technology companies which
dominate the web. I understand why they have an uneasy relationship with
governments. 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.

For our part, intelligence agencies such as GCHQ need to enter the
public debate about privacy. I think we have a good story to tell. We
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. GCHQ is happy to be
part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age. But privacy has
never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become
a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.

To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behaviour
on the internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in
denial about its misuse. I suspect most ordinary users of the internet
are ahead of them: they have strong views on the ethics of companies,
whether on taxation, child protection or privacy; they do not want the
media platforms they use with their friends and families to facilitate
murder or child abuse. They know the internet grew out of the values of
western democracy, not vice versa. I think those customers would be
comfortable with a better, more sustainable relationship between the
agencies and the technology companies. As we celebrate the 25th
anniversary of the spectacular creation that is the world wide web, we
need a new deal between democratic governments and the technology
companies in the area of protecting our citizens. It should be a deal
rooted in the democratic values we share. That means addressing some
uncomfortable truths. Better to do it now than in the aftermath of
greater violence.

The writer is the director of GCHQ, a UK government intelligence and
security organisation

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