British spy chief: Tech firms aiding terrorism

American tech giants are making it easier for terrorists to go undetected, the leader of a top British intelligence agency said on Monday.

The head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — the British equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA) — called for a new partnership between intelligence agencies and top tech companies, which have grown increasingly distrustful of government spying.

“[I]ncreasingly [tech companies’] services not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but are the routes for the facilitation of crime and terrorism,” GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan wrote in a Financial Times op-ed.

“However much they may dislike it, they 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 added. “If they are to meet this challenge, it means coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now.”

Since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and GCHQ in 2013, American tech giants such as Apple and Google have made a series of moves to automatically encrypt or better protect people’s data, with the goal of locking both hackers and government spies out of people’s communications. The moves are a reaction to global public fears about U.S. tech companies, which have cost them billions of dollars in profits.

Hannigan on Monday wrote that his agency “is happy to be part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age."

“But privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions,” he added.

The barriers imposed by the companies on intelligence agents is all the more pronounced, Hannigan wrote, because of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has “embraced the Web” as a way to spread its message and gain adherents.

His call is an echo of the Obama administration's criticism of the tech companies’ actions.

FBI Director James Comey last month called for Congress to update a 20-year-old wiretapping law to allow federal officials to gain access to smartphones and tablets that might otherwise be automatically encrypted to keep authorities out — even if they have a warrant.

In calling for the law, Comey pointed to the possibility of rapists and murderers going undetected, not terrorists.