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Privacy Not an 'Absolute Right': British Intelligence Chief

New head of GCHQ says companies like Twitter are 'networks of choice' for terrorist groups

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) building in Cheltenham, Gloucestireshire. (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/flickr/cc)

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) building in Cheltenham, Gloucestireshire. (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/flickr/cc)

Just days into his new job as the head of Britain’s spy agency, intelligence chief Robert Hannigan proclaimed on Tuesday that privacy "has never been an absolute right" and that social media networks are helping criminals and terrorist groups like ISIS build their operations.

Hannigan, who stepped into his role as director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) on October 24, said in an editorial for the Financial Times on Tuesday that tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp should cooperate with intelligence agencies in the name of "protecting our citizens" to avoid having a dialogue about "uncomfortable truths… in the aftermath of greater violence."

"GCHQ and its sister agencies… cannot tackle these challenges without greater support from the private sector, including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web," Hannigan said.

He continued:

"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. If they are to meet this challenge, it means coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now."

GCHQ, which often coordinates with domestic and international intelligence groups including MI-5, MI-6, and the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S., has come under fire from privacy advocates in the past for the invasive surveillance tactics it employs on both U.K. citizens and foreigners.

Hannigan’s editorial was seen by many as a call for private companies to grant the GCHQ extraordinary powers to monitor social media users without having to be held legally accountable.

Julian David, CEO of techUK—a coalition of 860 member companies, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, among others—rejected Hannigan’s statement.


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"To ensure public confidence, both in the digital economy and our democracy as a whole, any obligations placed upon technology companies must be based upon a clear and transparent legal framework and effective oversight rather than, as suggested, a deal between the industry and government," David told the Telegraph on Tuesday.

Civil liberties groups also lambasted Hannigan’s editorial. "It is not for the head of a powerful intelligence agency to wave his arms and expect citizens of a democracy to gladly give up their rights," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told the New York Times. "His responsibility is to protect their freedoms."

Twitter has said that the company received over 2,000 requests for private user data from approximately 50 countries in the first half of 2014 alone. Hannigan’s editorial comes shortly after the GCHQ revealed that British intelligence agencies have "arrangements" that allow them to access Americans’ communications data without a warrant and keep it for two years.

His comments also echoed a speech given by FBI director James Comey at the Brookings Institute on October 17, which claimed that government surveillance "enhances liberty."

"There will come a day—and it comes every day in this business—where it will matter a great deal to innocent people that we in law enforcement can't access certain types of data or information, even with legal authorization. We have to have these discussions now," Comey said at the time.

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, called Hannigan’s comments on Tuesday "disappointing."

"Before he condemns the efforts of companies to protect the privacy of their users, perhaps he should reflect on why there has been so much criticism of GCHQ in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations," King said. "GCHQ’s dirty games—forcing companies to hand over their customers’ data under secret orders, then secretly tapping the private fibre optic cables between the same companies’ data centres anyway—have lost GCHQ the trust of the public, and of the companies who services we use."

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