UK spy chief throws privacy in the fire, says it's not an 'absolute right'

Britain's new eavesdropping agency's chief publicly sets out his views and possible agenda by taking embracing the "collect it all" side of the debate.

Silicon Valley giants are in "denial" about the misuse of their technologies and products, according to Britain's new spy chief Robert Hannigan.

Read this

Meet the shadowy tech brokers that deliver your data to the NSA

These so-called "trusted third-parties" may be the most important tech companies you've never heard of. ZDNet reveals how these companies work as middlemen or "brokers" of customer data between ISPs and phone companies, and the U.S. government.

Read More

In a piece for London's Financial Times (paywalled), Hannigan said U.S. technology companies should offer "greater co-operation" in the fight against terrorism, by working with governments rather than working against their intelligence agencies in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures.

The article was in response to the growing threat by ISIS, otherwise known as Islamic State, a well-connected and powerful new terrorist group which has taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Hannigan, who took over the country's eavesdropping and signals intercepting intelligence agency GCHQ in the past year, said in order to fight the new terror threat it means "coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now."

He suggested that as the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Web, there should be a "new deal" between governments and the technology companies "in the area of protecting our citizens."

To that end, he said, while GCHQ is "happy" to be part of a debate on privacy in the digital age, he declared that "privacy has never been an absolute right" particularly in the wake of the growing threat from ISIS.

It's not surprising that the boss of the intelligence agency that, like its U.S. counterpart the National Security Agency, has been accused of violating international law and the privacy of millions of people, says that privacy is not as important as defeating an increasingly hostile and threatening group to his homeland. 

However, Hannigan's remarks land squarely in conflict with a fundamental European principle: that privacy is an ingrained right to everyone living in the 28-member state bloc of nations.

Privacy is a right, Europe says, and there's no getting out of it. During the last year, harsh rhetoric from the European Commission has reiterated that, by its laws and doing right by its citizens, the NSA and other agencies cannot just dip in and acquire Europeans' data through indiscriminate methods. 

Although no companies were singled-out by the new GCHQ boss, he suggested that most "ordinary users of the internet," who do not want the media platforms they use to be used to "facilitate murder or child abuse" would be "comfortable with a better, more sustainable relationship" between intelligence agencies and technology companies.

It goes almost without saying but the furor over the initial PRISM story , which claimed tech companies were in cahoots with the NSA and others, cannot be quelled by creating stronger relationships — secret or otherwise — with technology companies.

But, Hannigan also pointed to the recent developments in smartphone encryption, which Apple and Google have added to their iOS and Android platforms in efforts to counter some of the surveillance conducted by Western governments in recent years.

Now the technology companies are fighting back. They're locking down their networks, they're bolstering encryption between datacenters and their users, and they're doubling-down on device security . It's a massive effort to counter some of the revelations that have come out in the last year-and-a-half.

In the game of government to Silicon Valley cat-and-mouse, the mice are ahead of their predators. And while GCHQ's Hannigan has a right to debate, he doesn't have a right to complain.

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All