The new head of Britain's equivalent to the NSA – Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – has used his first day on the job to lambaste US technology companies for daring to improve the security of their products.
"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," Robert Hannigan, director of GCHQ, told the Financial Times.
He opined that Google and Apple were "in denial" if they thought the decision to turn on full-device encryption by default wouldn't help terrorists plan future attacks. British intelligence agencies, he said, "cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support ... including [from] the largest US tech companies which dominate the web."
In a public forum last month, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said that the security services shouldn't be surprised that Google and others had started adding encryption by default, since it was done after the discovery that some intelligence agencies were surreptitiously tapping tech companies' servers.
Consumers want secure data, Schmidt said at the time, but the GCHQ boss told FT that internet users would welcome a little surveillance. Those online "would be comfortable with a better and more sustainable relationship between the [intelligence] agencies and the tech companies," Hannigan said.
Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known variously as ISIS, ISIL, or simply the Islamic State) are growing increasingly canny in the ways they use technology to mask their communications, Hannigan said, and not just on their smartphones.
The Facebook-owned WhatsApp service is key to terrorist communications, he claimed, adding that ISIS commanders were using it to organize troops in Syria. Furthermore, YouTube and other video services are broadcasting propaganda, Hannigan warned, and technology firms need to have relationships with intelligence agencies to block this kind of material.
Most people choose to take it somewhat easy on their first day on the job – getting to know staff, finding out where the toilets are, and so forth. The fact that Hannigan has spent his first day firing off a public-relations broadside on this issue shows quite how worried the security services are about the proliferation of communications they can't easily tap.
Hannigan is not alone. For the last couple of months, the FBI has been proffering similar arguments, with the agency's director making speeches and giving briefings about how technology firms should provide backdoors – or front doors – to their products for intelligence services to use in investigations into terrorism, child abuse, and the drugs trade.
Whether all of this Sturm und Drang will do much to convince tech companies to toe the line remains to be seen. Microsoft, Apple, Google and others have made plain that they are quite aware of the dangers of doing so: While backdoors might keep the spies happy, sales of devices and cloud services would plummet should word get out that US tech giants were willing partners in mass surveillance. ®