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In the first interview ever given by a serving British security chief, MI5 director general Andrew Parker called for more online surveillance powers to be signed into law as he warned that the UK faces its greatest terrorist threat in 30 years.
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Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, Parker said that, with organisations such as so-called Islamic State regularly exploiting the power of online social networks to recruit members and plot attacks, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms collectively had a responsibility to report extremist activity and other forms of online criminality to the authorities.
“There is a real question here about responsibility for those who carry this information,” said Parker. “Some of the social media companies operate arrangements for their own purposes under their codes of practice, which cause them to close accounts sometimes because of what is carried.
"I think there is then a question about why not come forward? If there is something that concerns terrorism, or child sex exploitation or concerns some other appalling area of crime, why would the company not come forward?”
In 2014 it emerged that Facebook knew one of fusilier Lee Rigby’s killers had discussed planning the murder on its platform with fellow extremists.
Facebook shut down the account after automated systems detected extremist activity, but no feedback loop existed to notify the appropriate authorities and prevent the attack.
MI5 said its ability to analyse communications data had already proved instrumental in disrupting terrorist activity. In 2010 it identified crucial links between seven persons of interest who were in the final stages of planning to blow up the London Stock Exchange and other symbolic locations.
MI5 encryption warning
Parker issued a warning over online encryption, saying he feared that technological advances by security firms and social networks could cause terror suspects to “go dark” and disappear.
In comments made after his BBC interview, Parker said: “The way we work these days has changed as technology has advanced. Our success depends on us and our partner agencies having sufficient, up-to-date capabilities, used within a clear framework of law against those who threaten this country.
“I welcome government’s intent to update the legal framework accordingly and to make our powers more transparent. Keeping our laws up to date in this area can only be a good thing in a free, democratic country – the very thing MI5 exists to protect. We need to be able to operate in secret if we are to succeed against those who mean the UK harm. But the capabilities we use can be described more fully in law.
“We take our legal and ethical duty to use these powers proportionately extremely seriously. We never use them for the sake of it and do not trawl at will through people’s private lives.”
Earlier this week home secretary Theresa May held a meeting with US internet service providers and UK telcos to garner support for her revived surveillance bill – also known as the Snooper’s Charter – which could see surveillance powers extended further into the realm of social media. According to The Guardian the government wants a draft bill in the next 30 days.