GCHQ head calls for overhauled tools to fight extremists online

Newly appointed GCHQ head Robert Hannigan has called for reviewed legal tools to counter internet-enabled extremists

The recently appointed head of UK intelligence agency GCHQ Robert Hannigan has called for an overhaul of legal tools to help security and law enforcement agencies counter internet-enabled extremists.

In turn, intelligence agencies such as GCHQ need to enter the public debate about privacy, Hannigan wrote in the Financial Times (FT).

Just days into the job, he reiterated recent calls by his predecessor Iain Lobban, FBI director James Comey and European Cybercrime Centre head Troels Oerting for better tools to do their jobs.

Hannigan said large US tech firms have become the “command and control networks of choice” for terrorists and criminals, who have found online services as transformational as everyone else.

The only way to meet this challenge, he said, is coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, intelligence agencies like GCHQ need to enter the debate about privacy and show they are accountable for the data they use to protect people, according to Hannigan.

He said while GCHQ is happy to be part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age, the debate should not become a reason for postponing “urgent and difficult decisions”.

Newly installed director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Rogers has signalled a similar approach in the US at a recruitment drive at Stanford University.

Like his GCHQ counterpart, Rogers called for a broader dialogue about what privacy means in the digital age, reports CNet.com

Hannigan said UK security agencies need support from large US tech firms in light of the fact extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have embraced the web.

He backed the call by saying: “The challenge to governments and their intelligence agencies is huge – and it can only be met with greater co-operation from technology companies.”

GCHQ has come under strong criticism since US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 the agency had powerful online surveillance capabilities.

Public outcry has led to attempts by most large US tech firms to distance themselves from government surveillance and launch privacy enhancements for online services.

Isis has embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people and radicalise new recruits

Robert Hannigan, GCHQ

Hannigan lamented that "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”.

Making a call for greater support from tech firms, he said these services increasingly host violent extremism or child exploitation content and facilitate crime and terrorism.

He also said Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) is exploiting the internet in new ways.

"Where Al-Qaeda and its affiliates saw the internet as a place to disseminate material anonymously or meet in dark spaces, Isis has embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people and radicalise new recruits,” wrote Hannigan.

Security minister James Brokenshire recently met with representatives from tech firms – including Google, Microsoft and Facebook – in Luxembourg to discuss ways to tackle online extremism, reports the BBC.

Analysts said Hannigan has wasted no time in wading into the debate over security and privacy, and has made it clear he will not shy away from a fight.

Hannigan took over from Lobban on 1 November 2014 after serving as director general for defence and intelligence at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 2010.

He was appointed by foreign secretary William Hague in April 2014 after a recruitment process which was open to crown and civil servants.

Deal needed between democratic governments and tech firms

Hannigan concluded his FT article by saying as the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the worldwide web, a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies is needed.

“It should be a deal rooted in the democratic values we share. That means addressing some uncomfortable truths. Better to do it now than in the aftermath of greater violence,” he said.

Facebook rules already state organisations with a record of terrorist or violent criminal activity are not allowed to maintain a presence on the social network or post content in support of terrorist groups.

The firm has declined to make an official statement, but said it already works with law enforcement agencies and will disclose information either in good faith if it will prevent harm or in response to a court order, reports The Telegraph.

Other US tech firms, including Google, Twitter and Microsoft declined to comment, the paper said.

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The key issue is one he does, at least, appear to be aware of: the importance of accountability. That new tools and new approaches are needed is not, I think, in doubt. That accountability is, however, absolutely crucial, is something the NSA and CIA really don't wish to acknowledge and continue to fight at every level. The UK government and its various instruments (GCHQ included) don't have a great track record of transparency either, even when reporting to those bodies tasked with monitoring the secret services. So even as we hasten to find better tools to enable people like Robert Hanigan to do his job, let us also make sure we put in place better and more transparent methods for enabling – indeed, forcing – him to maintain full and proper accountability.


There is no democracy without the ability to conceal your political views, to avoid overt coercion or secret repercussions from the people in power. Hence the anonymous ballots. The ability to track everything you read and write is an extremely effective way to determine your political beliefs, without needing to read your ballot.

Remember, these are the same kinds of government agencies that 50 years ago were going after civil rights activists and peace activists (FBI) using paid informants, and illegally maintaining an enemies list of people to round up and jail at the first opportunity.


So much cheaper and easier to simply harvest everyone's communications to search for people to blacklist.



There's a bunch of people in another country who don't like us, plus a few of their supporters in the UK, they are using mobile phones, emails and social networking to communicate.

I can understand the need to be able to monitor and indeed prevent or even subvert their communications and I'm 100% behind having the capability to do this.

Please explain why this means that me, and all the other law abiding citizens need to give up our privacy and have all of our communications data gathered and kept for a minimum of 2 years available to everyone from a town clerk upwards ?

Monitoring everyone sounds expensive as well as invasive, but we're paying for this via increased charges from our service providers, so there's no tax or government budget we can object to.

If we have reasonable suspicion that person A is a bad guy, then we ought to be able to get a judicial warrant enabling the monitoring of all of their communications, so do this.

Then you have a list of people they've contacted, you can then get warrants for them too and monitor them and so on until you have enough connections to perform a network analysis.

It's called due process, the presumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty and you can only look at their private communications if you have a reasonable suspicion i.e. evidence.

And before anyone says this would be unworkable, what exactly is it that makes it unworkable ?

The monitoring capability ? well we're currently monitoring everyone so that can't be it.

It must be the need for warrants, which either means we haven't got enough judiciary to cope with the demand, in which case we elevate more judges to the bench.

Or it's that we have insufficient evidence and I really hope it's not that as that means we're treating people as suspects on hunches or them looking shifty, a sus law, I grew up with those, they didn't work in the 70's either.

Or, and I really hope it's not this, getting a warrant is judged to be too slow, in which case we're all being surveilled 24/7 because it's convenient and takes the judiciary out of the loop making this surveillance directly political in nature, when governments are monitoring the people who are about to elect their replacements I get much more scared than if some terrorist group in a foreign country commits an atrocity. We should be watching our MP's not the other way round.