Social networks – command and control centres for terrorists?
It wasn’t that long ago that the only spies in the public eye were James Bond and prominent Cold War defectors. But over recent years high-ranking intelligence chiefs have stepped out of the shadows to appear in public, write books and give interviews. They’ll be inviting the public to tour MI5 or the Pentagon next. It all seems a bit counter-intuitive as I’d have thought keeping a low profile was one of the key skills that intelligence agencies were looking for.
The latest spy to break cover is Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ. In an interview with the Financial Times to mark starting in his new role he lambasted social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, calling them “command-and-control networks for terrorists and criminals.” One of his key concerns is the spread of encryption techniques on common mobile phone operating systems – both Apple and Google have recently made encryption a standard feature that users can opt-out of rather than having to opt-in to use.
This is obviously good for privacy, but bad for those looking to monitor the activities of terrorist cells. In his article Hannigan issued a plea for more openness and collaboration between tech companies and the security services.
But in my opinion he’s overlooking two major factors. Firstly, demonising social media is a bit like criticising the telephone network for being used to plan a bank robbery. It is, as tech companies claim, an agnostic platform. If the police suspect a crime is being committed (or planned) there are processes in place to work with a social network to assist them in their enquiries. Normal people don’t see Facebook as a threat to their safety – though, given what some seem happy to share online, perhaps they should.
And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a lack of trust in the security services. The revelations of Edward Snowden showed, as many suspected, that our online activities are being spied on. Recent revelations about police being able to access the telephone records of journalists without needing a warrant using Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislation just add to this.
The trouble with the whole debate about online privacy is that it is becoming increasingly polarised. On the one hand social networks support their ‘free’ business model by collecting and selling data on the interests of their users, allowing them to be targeted with ads. Then at the other end of the spectrum the security services are demanding more access to the very same data. The people in the middle are the users, the vast majority of whom have no idea of how much they are being tracked when they go about their business online. What is needed is more education so that it is clearer about how they can legitimately protect themselves online, rather than both sides scaremongering about the other. Terrorism is a threat to a free internet, but equally so is draconian, untargeted snooping by intelligence agencies and the erosion of user privacy by the networks that we rely on.
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About meI'm Chris Measures and I've spent the last 18 years creating and implementing PR and marketing campaigns for technology companies. I've worked with everyone from large quoted companies to fast growth start-ups, giving me unrivalled experience and ideas. I'm now director of Measures Consulting, an agency that uses this expertise to deliver PR and marketing success for technology businesses.
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