Should Facebook spy on us to curb terrorism?

Spy

The Parliamentary Intelligence Security Committee (ISC) has published a special report on the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by two extremists. The report offers an interesting insight into the workings of the security services, and while it criticises oversights by intelligence agencies that failed to identify the threat posed by perpetrators Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, it reserves most of its criticism for online service providers. The report details that a third party, later identified as Facebook, was able to find communications between Adebowale and another contact, in which he clearly stated his wish to kill a soldier. The report reads:

“QQ. After the attack, information was provided to GCHQ by a third party revealing a substantial online exchange between Adebowale and FOXTROT (an extremist thought to have links with AQAP) in December 2012, in which Adebowale expressed his desire to murder a soldier in the most explicit and emotive manner. The Committee has seen this exchange and was shocked by its graphic nature.

RR. The company on whose systems this exchange took place had not been aware of the exchange prior to the attack. However, they had previously closed some of Adebowale’s accounts because their automated system deemed them to be associated with terrorism – yet they neither reviewed those accounts nor passed any information to the authorities.

SS. We take the view that, when possible links to terrorism trigger accounts to be closed, the company concerned – and other Communications Service Providers – should accept their responsibility to review these accounts immediately and, if such reviews provide evidence of specific intention to commit a terrorist act, they should pass this information to the appropriate authority.”

These paragraphs, and other parts of the report, make it clear that the ISC believes strongly that had Facebook monitored all communications, the above message would have been found. It is also their contention that had they given this message to the security services, then the murder would not have taken place.

It is time to watch Minority Report again, we are dangerously approaching pre-crime territory.

A big part of the report is spent on analysing the current mechanisms available to the intelligence agencies to try to intercept communications to curb terrorism, with specific mention of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA). The ISC constantly bemoans the fact that overseas Internet service providers do not comply with RIPA requests because “they
do not consider themselves bound by UK legislation”. How dare they? However, the committee highlighted that there is an existing legal mechanism which allows US-based services to share information, this is the US and the UK Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT).

The report then spends some space detailing the automate surveillance and monitoring capacities of several providers:

  • Apple: “does not actively monitor communications on its systems”.
  • BlackBerry does not monitor communications content on its networks or the services offered to BlackBerry end users”.
  • Facebook doesn’t have an automated system, but they enable users to report “offensive or threatening content” and they prioritise the “most serious reports”, which
    may then be escalated to law enforcement as appropriate.
  • Google has an automated monitoring system: “as permitted by US law, we use automated techniques to monitor our networks in several ways to keep our networks and our users safe and secure.” These include technology looking for dangerous websites, security measures to detect suspicious logins and measures to detect and prevent spam. However, Google doesn’t review all material.
  • Microsoft did not refer to any automated systems, and told the Committee that “we do not monitor our customers’ communications in the way [you] contemplate…”.
  • Twitter did not refer to any automated systems, and has confirmed it “does not monitor its users’ communications”. Twitter specified that such a system would be “unfeasible”, but that it would also “burden the free exchange of information”.
  • Yahoo did not refer to any automated systems. It stated that: “Yahoo does not proactively monitor communications on Yahoo Mail or Yahoo Messenger. That would breach our users’ privacy”.

The report’s answer to this was to criticise such lack of monitoring, and to state that terrorists are probably plotting atrocities using those services.

“WW. We note that several of the companies ascribed their failure to review suspicious content to the volume of material on their systems. Whilst there may be practical difficulties involved, the companies should accept they have a responsibility to notify the relevant authorities when an automatic trigger indicating terrorism is activated and allow the authorities, whether US or UK, to take the next step. We further note that several of the companies attributed the lack of monitoring to the need to protect their users’ privacy. However, where there is a possibility that a terrorist atrocity is being planned, that argument should not be allowed to prevail.”

Firstly, let me applaud most of the responses by the online service providers. Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo seem to be telling the UK government to sod off. Google comes out as quite creepy, they appear to be saying “we do monitor all of the communications in our network automatically, we just won’t do it for your benefit”.

The ISC comes across and technologically naive in my opinion. They seem to be castigating online services for not actively monitoring everything we do, as it may lead to terrorist acts being committed. I do not know about anyone else, but I am not willing to give up my rights in exchange for the semblance of security, as it is clear that even extensive surveillance would fail to prevent all extremists from acting out their plans. The potential for false positives is great, but it also creates a society where we know that our every communication is being analysed by some mindless algorithm. This scares me more than anything else, the idea that everyone needs to be normal and comply to the accepted communication standards. Do not think. Do not deviate. Comply.

Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.

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