This week the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) refused to lay blame at our intelligence agencies’ door for failing to prevent the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby. Instead, in a perverse move, they pointed the finger at Facebook and its fellow web firms.
The ISC’s press release branded the social network a “safe haven for terrorists” – echoing the new GCHQ director Robert Hannigan’s outburst earlier this month. Facebook was singled out for failing to flag up an exchange between Michael Adebowale and a foreign jihadist.
The Prime Minister went even further – claiming internet companies have a “social responsibility” to stop networks being used to “plot murder and mayhem”. Isn’t it the responsibility of the security services, rather than web firms, to investigate terrorists? Facebook boasts more than a billion users – even the former MI6 chief Richard Barrett has highlighted the absurdity of expecting them to play “spook” and trawl through every post. We wouldn’t expect BT to listen in on every call on the Government’s behalf. Why are internet companies any different?
The state has all the powers it needs to demand access to data. But the ISC has spun the facts to mask intelligence agency failings and heap the blame on web firms. Deep within the report, the ISC reveals that the social network wasn’t even asked to intercept Adebowale’s online conversation. If it had been, and it had refused, the security services would have had the technological capability to get it for themselves. The only reason not any of this occurred was because the security services didn’t consider monitoring Adebowale to be a priority.
Blaming communications service providers is laughable but it’s also dangerous. It deflects from the real story behind the report – the catalogue of errors made by our intelligence agencies. Countless missed surveillance opportunities; delayed investigations; dumping dangerous citizens abroad; ignoring allegations of MI5 mistreatment. The list goes on.
The ISC’s approach leads us further down a slippery slope towards blanket surveillance of the entire population. GCHQ already stands accused of mass snooping on Britain and across the world – exploiting legal loopholes to intercept the emails, messages and web chats of millions of innocent people. Sensible, properly targeted investigations of terrorist suspects are one thing – indiscriminate spying on every one of us is another.
The detail – as opposed to the bluster – of the ISC report exposed the UK’s anti-terrorism strategy as counterproductive and failing on almost every level. It revealed the authorities are neglecting to track suspects with the powers and intelligence capabilities they already have. But yesterday, with the publication of yet another counter-terrorism Bill, the Government is seeking even more powers to transform us all into suspects – leaving the public no safer and everyone a little less free. When will they learn?
Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty
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