The new head of UK "listening centre" GCHQ has called on social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to co-operate more with the authorities to block terrorists using their networks.
After the Snowden spying scandal US technology companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google said they were seeking to protect users' data and privacy with stronger encryption methods. But GCHQ's new head, Robert Hannigan, wants tech company co-operation in tackling organisations like Isis in Iraq and Syria from benefitting from their communications networks.
In an article in the Financial Times, Hannigan, which doesn't name any particular company, infers that social media networks run by the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter formed part of the "command and control infrastructure" of terrorist groups such as Isis.
He claimed such companies were "in denial" about how their technology was helping Isis, which uses social media to promote its cause and recruit. The authorities also believe the networks are being used by Isis and others to support secret communications between members.
The same type of fears have previously been expressed by spying agencies around encrypted BlackBerry smartphones, and encrypted Skype voice over IP conversations.
The argument over privacy and protected networks is certainly an old one. BT as both a nationalised company and a private organisation has always had a special department which aids phone tapping for the authorities. And US network hardware providers have been required to hand over "backdoor" encryption keys to spying agencies. The US government was also keen to see the widespread roll-out of fibre networks, as fibre is easier to tap into for data and voice communications on a grand scale when required.
Hannigan maintains that GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 cannot fully tackle the organisations it is targeting without the help of the "largest US technology companies which dominate the web”, he said in the FT.
Hannigan said: “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.”
Director of the FBI James Comey has previously called for “a regulatory or legislative fix” to counteract the expanding use of data encryption being offered to mobile consumers from the likes of Apple and Google.
“Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive,” said Comey. "Homicide cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free, and child exploitation victims might not be identified,” claimed Comey