Can tech companies stop ISIL?

We are extremely lucky that ISIL uses the services of western companies to communicate and propagandise.

US State Department's Twitter page criticises ISIL as part of a broad social media campaign [AP]
US State Department's Twitter page criticises ISIL as part of a broad social media campaign [AP]

Imagine an alternate reality to The Imitation Game, the latest World War II Hollywood epic featuring famed codebreaker Alan Turing; in this version, Adolf Hitler’s military complex has ditched their complicated Enigma machines. They do this in favour of the telegraph, the wireless radio or even the newspaper.

Imagine then if the Nazis had conducted their Blitzkriegs using these public mediums, instead of the secretive missives more typical of military organisations back then, and indeed today.

How strange would it then be if Allied intelligence agencies had abruptly accused the contemporary newspaper barons, radio station owners and telegraph operators of acting as “command and control networks of choice” for Nazi Germany.

This is the bizarre argument that Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed head of General Communications Headquarters, made in his first week in the job as head of Britain’s secretive national surveillance agency. He argued that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was using Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp as coordination networks, or propaganda mediums. He accused Silicon Valley of being “in denial about its misuse”. He asked for more cooperation, alleging these companies were resistant.

Problem of propaganda

The nub of Hannigan’s rhetoric is that GCHQ would rather ISIL use communication mediums which do not have cooperative offices in the West; servers which are readily accessible to his spooks. He casually over-states the problem of propaganda – warning that ISIL generates 40,000 tweets per day, neglecting to mention Twitter hosts half a billion tweets in that same period.

Tech firms ‘in denial’ over ISIL propaganda

Instead, Hannigan would prefer ISIL communicate in other ways – methods which would be completely opaque to his agency’s surveillance. Perhaps a paper letter, in a country where there are precious few western intelligence agents. Or a carrier pigeon.

Aside from the bizarre complaint of how damn easy it is to track these people, Hannigan had another gripe – that Silicon Valley does not do enough to help the intelligence agencies track down the bad guys.

The reality could not be more different.

As broad background, we now know that more traditional technology firms like Vodafone, British Telecom, and Verizon already gave GCHQ access to the fibre optic cables running a great proportion of the internet under the Atlantic Ocean – equivalent to recording “all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours”. GCHQ can also access any information the NSA bulk-collects from Silicon Valley, without even getting a warrant.

As publicly listed companies, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp have little interest in being “command and control centres” for terrorists, or hosting horrific content. Nothing hurts dividends like a website becoming a trove of extremist filth. Thanks to Snowden, awareness of privacy issues is also at an all-time high, and as tech blog The Register put it “sales of devices and cloud services would plummet should word get out that US tech giants were willing partners in mass surveillance”.

Encryption measures

Indeed, the Snowden revelations have seen Silicon tech giants implement a range of end-to-end encryption measures to reassure their users that their most intimate details aren’t being exposed wholesale to spies for no reason. Hannigan’s piece in the Financial Times is a transparently tactical public relations response to this activity.

The Snowden revelations have seen Silicon tech giants implement a range of end-to-end encryption measures to reassure their users that their most intimate details aren’t being exposed wholesale to spies for no reason.

But even despite these market risks, evidence suggests that Silicon Valley is collaborating with surveillance agencies anyway – putting Hannigan’s view at risk of being painted as pure fantasy.

Twitter, for example, removed a record amount of content from January to June 2014, as made clear in their own “transparency reports”. Other tech companies run similar programmes. Twitter even removed numerous accounts which didn’t correspond to government requests – meaning they proactively went out and found tweeting terrorists, and expelled them.

As Privacy International also rightly calls out – there are numerous “official and voluntary schemes in place” to allow spooks to access data when needed. The latest documents released by The Intercept suggest that certain, unnamed, US companies knew about the surveillance programmes. Further evidence suggests financial payments were made to Silicon Valley to cover the costs of meeting NSA surveillance requirements.

It may be an attempt to offload blame, but according to NSA’s top lawyer – Rajesh De, “big tech companies . provided ‘full assistance’ in legally mandated collection of data”.

And as Al Jazeera America recently reported, Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote an email to the head of the NSA, apologising for not attending a collaboration meeting – “General Keith … so great to see you … I’m unlikely to be in California that week so I’m sorry I can’t attend [will be on the East Coast]. Would love to see you another time. Thank you!”

The tone doesn’t suggest an uncooperative relationship.

Ritual lawbreaking

Hannigan’s blaming of Silicon Valley is a crude attempt to launder his agency’s reputation for ritual lawbreaking since 2001. He has taken the opportunity of the ISIL crisis haunting public opinion, to cancel out the Snowden revelations and his agency’s mass wrongdoing. His comments came shortly after FBI Director James Comey made near identical comments in the US, calling, like Hannigan did, for more collaboration from tech companies.

Writing in the Financial Times, which has an older audience less-versed with Generation Y’s obsession with social media, it’s easy for GCHQ to paint a picture of newfangled technology being evil, rather than ISIL themselves, or indeed GCHQ or the NSA (in relative terms).

There are three words that the unrepentant GCHQ and NSA would do well to remember – before moaning about uncooperative technology companies: Get a warrant. There is already a perfectly decent system for recovering information from any organisation that provides information conduits for a terrorist, regardless of how cooperative the company may be in the meantime. In many ways, we are extremely lucky that ISIL chooses to use the services of western companies to communicate and propagandise.

So Hannigan doesn’t need to qualitatively criticise the relationship between spying agencies and those companies – the law, a judge, and a warrant can give you all you need.

Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.

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