Technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter have become “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists and criminals but are “in denial” about the scale of the problem, the new head of GCHQ has said.
Robert Hannigan said that Isil terrorists in Syria and Iraq have “embraced the web” and are using it to intimidate people and inspire “would-be jihadis” from all over the world to join them.
He urged the companies to work more closely with the security services, arguing that it is time for them to confront “some uncomfortable truths” and that privacy is not an “absolute right”.
He suggested that unless US technology companies co-operate, new laws will be needed to ensure that intelligence agencies are able to track and pursue terrorists.
His comments represent some of the most outspoken criticism yet of US technology giants by the security services, and come amid growing tensions following leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In an article for the Financial Times, Mr Hannigan said: “I understand why they [US technology companies] 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.
“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.”
Mr Hannigan took on the role of director of GCHQ last month after a distinguished career as a senior diplomat. He was appointed to the role in the wake of the Snowden scandal to help bolster the public profile of the organisation and take a more active role in the debate about its work.
He highlighted the eruption of extremist jihadi material online on websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp, and said that terrorists are now able to hide their identities using encryption tools which were once only available to states.
He said that in the past, al-Qaida and its terrorists have used the internet as a place to anonymously distribute material or “meet in dark spaces”.
Isil, however, has taken a much more direct approach, using social networking services to get their messages across in a “language their peers understand”.
He highlighted the production values of videos in which they attack towns, fire weapons and detonate explosives, saying that they have a “self-conscious online gaming quality”.
He said that even the groups grotesque videos of beheadings highlight the sophistication of their use of social media. “This time the ‘production values’ were high and the videos stopped short of showing the actual beheading,” he said.
“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.”
He highlighted the use of popular terms on Twitter to broaden their appeal such as World Cup and Ebola. He said that during the advance on Mosul in Iraq the jihadists were sending 40,000 tweets a day.
Their cause has been helped by Mr Snowden as they copy his high level of encryption, with some programmes and apps even advertised as “Snowden approved”. He said: “There is no doubt that young foreign fighters have learned and benefited from the leaks of the past two years”.
Mr Hannigan said that families have “strong views” about the ethics of companies and do not expect the social networks they use to “facilitate murder or child abuse”.
The Conservatives are pushing for a communications Bill to give the security services greater access to internet communications. The move has been blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Hannigan said: “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.
“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.”
Facebook rules state that organisations with a record of terrorist or violent criminal activity are not allowed to “maintain a presence” on the social network or post content in support of terrorist groups.
The company, which has declined to make an official statement, says it already works with law enforcement agencies and will disclose information either in good faith if it will prevent harm or upon court order.
Other US internet companies including Google, Twitter and Microsoft declined to comment.