Some of the big U.S. tech companies that dominate the Internet seem to be “in denial about its misuse,” Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) chief Robert Hannigan wrote in a Financial Times op-ed.
“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,” he said.
Although terrorists have long used the Internet, Hannigan said, the approach of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) is different.
“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 radicalize new recruits.”
He said ISIS uses social media programs like Twitter and Facebook to engage audiences – “capitalizing on Western freedom of expression” – and posts videos that boast “online gaming quality.”
“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.”
A Twitter spokesman declined to comment overnight. Facebook’s media office did not reply to queries by press time.
Hannigan said ISIS also benefits from greater security and encryption capabilities that are widely available.
“Terrorists have always found ways of hiding their operations. But today mobile technology and smartphones have increased the options available exponentially,” he wrote. “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.”
He said agencies like the GCHQ need greater support from the private sector, including major tech companies.
Alluding to the suspicions triggered by revelations of intelligence agency surveillance operations around the world, Hannigan said he could understand why tech companies “have an uneasy relationship with governments.”
“They aspire to be neutral conduits of data and to sit outside or above politics,” he conceded. “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.”
He said intelligence agencies for their part much enter the public debate about privacy.
“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.”
Apart from its active social media presence and video clips, ISIS has published four editions of a full-color online magazine since July.
A special division run set up by the British government in 2010 and run by Scotland Yard monitors the use of the Internet to incite terrorism, and is empowered to remove offending material. Between 2010 and last month, the government reported that the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit had removed more than 51,000 pieces of content from the Internet, including 32,000 pieces over the past 10 months alone.
In Saudi Arabia, a government unit that aims to counter radicalism reported this week that a survey during October found terrorists were sending an average of 90 messages on Twitter every minute, or almost 130,000 tweets a day.
As a result, some 500 accounts run by individuals promoting the activities of terrorist groups had been deactivated, said Abdulmunim Al-Mushawah, the head of the As-Sakinah Campaign for Dialogue, an initiative falling under the Islamic Affairs Ministry.