Given that Edward Snowden‘s concerns that UK authorities operate a surveillance system where “anything goes”, it is not surprising that Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament this week that Internet firms are “being used to plot murder and mayhem.” Cameron’s comments were meant to drum up public support for the government’s Anti-Terrorism and Security Bill that would give GCHQ even greater authority to retain user data.
Speaking via Skype at the London Observer Ideas festival last year, the whistleblower and former National Security Agency specialist said there were “really no limits” to the GCHQ’s surveillance capabilities.” Snowden said: “They collect everything that might be interesting. Snowden expressed privacy concerns that, “It’s up to the government to justify why it needs this. It’s not up to you to justify why it doesn’t.”
Cameron’s comments followed the publication of a report to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) on the gruesome 2013 knife and cleaver hacking to death of British soldier Lee Rigby by two Muslim extremists, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. It was especially shocking that the attack took place just outside the South London military barracks for the Royal Fusiliers.
The ISC’s report examined a series of failures on the part of the intelligence agencies–which, despite having both extremists under surveillance, failed to prevent Sargent Rigby’s death. The men were considered suspects in seven separate investigations, but were had never been arrested until after daylight slaughter of Rigby. ISC concluded the only “decisive” possibility of preventing the attack would have involved affirmative cooperation by an unnamed Internet company–since identified by the BBC as Facebook–where Adebowale bragged, in graphic detail, about his intent to murder a soldier to advertise his cause.
The ISC report stated that during a December 2012 online exchange between Adebowale and his recruiter overseas, “Adebowale expressed his intent to murder a soldier in the most graphic and emotive manner.” ISC commented that if MI5 had access to the conversation at the time, “Adebowale would have become a top priority,” and there was a significant possibility MI5 could have prevented the attack.
ISC added that the “one party which could have made a difference was the company on whose system the exchange took place. However, this company does not regard themselves as under any obligation to ensure that they identify such threats.”
The Prime Minister warned that “Terrorists are using the internet to communicate with each other and we must not accept that these communications are beyond the reach of the authorities or the internet companies themselves.”
Cameron’s comments were timed to drum up public support for the government’s Anti-Terrorism and Security Bill, which would give GCHQ even greater authority over American companies to retain user data.
Every Internet company claims it has internal policies to supposedly “protect” the public from dangerous and illegal Internet activities. But Robert Hannigan, the new chief of U.K. spy agency GCHQ, made a public appeal early this month to put pressure on digital firms to offer greater cooperation with intelligence services to hand over user data. Hannigan specifically named American companies Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as conduits being used by ISIS to communicate and spread its extremist propaganda across the UK.
The British government is clearly threatening American Internet companies that they had better agree to take a more proactive role in counter-terrorism surveillance efforts to identify extremists, or Parliament will legislate for more control over private companies.
Facing a possible election next year, Cameron’s political popularity has been strengthened after he negotiated with the U.K.’s major ISPs to introduce broader search filtering to catch extremist material being transmitted online. The tools include the ability of members of the public to click a button to report instantly terrorist and extremist content they discover online.
Hammering American companies like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp for not being “more pro-active” in the filtering of the content to protect British citizens seems to be a great political move for Cameron. Yet people need to remember Snowden’s concerns that when governments are demanding unlimited power to spy domestically, it often it may not just about national security concerns.