British spy agency demands more help from tech titans

Following US government counterparts, the new head of Britain's Government Communications Headquarters criticizes tech firms for permitting terrorists to use their services.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
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A general view of GCHQ in Scarborough, England. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The new top spy at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters has a message for Silicon Valley: Stop helping terrorists.

Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed director of Britain's equivalent to the US National Security Agency, wrote a column the Financial Times denouncing tech companies' efforts to protect against spying without legal warrants.

While companies "aspire to be neutral conduits of data" free of political considerations, their services "not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but are the routes for the facilitation of crime and terrorism," he wrote.

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment. Apple, Google and Microsoft did not return requests for comment.

Many of the world's largest technology companies have become increasingly averse to warrantless surveillance since Edward Snowden first revealed the practice in June 2013. Google, Microsoft and Facebook, among others, have met with members of the US Congress and President Barack Obama over the spying, and have detailed publicly their attempts to better encrypt their services.

In September, Apple and Google announced that the latest versions of their iOS and Android mobile operating systems are encrypted by default. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey denounced improved encryption use and called for mandatory government backdoors in October.

"Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous, which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states, now come as standard," Hannigan wrote Monday. Internet technologies "have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us," he said, specifically citing Twitter, Facebook, and the messaging service WhatsApp.

Not everyone agrees with the intelligence agencies' stance. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has said he opposes forcing companies to build encryption backdoors, and said it's "understandable" they would respond to "consumer demand" for more privacy. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt last month said spying revelations could "break the Internet" and irreparably damage US dominance in the global tech economy.

For his part, Hannigan said he believes government intelligence agencies should be more involved in the privacy debate to better prove their case to tech company customers.

"I think those customers would be comfortable with a better, more sustainable relationship between the agencies and the technology companies," he wrote.