ISIS calling?

Spy Chiefs Launch Operation Social Media

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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There is no doubt that Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed chief of the U.K.'s electronic intelligence agency, GCHQ, wants social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to cooperate more closely with his agency. The big question is why he wants to tell them that in public.

GCHQ has usually been an especially secretive service: Hannigan's predecessor, Iain Lobban, was its first head to speak publicly, and that just because he was called on to testify in Parliament. Hannigan took the unprecedented step of writing a newspaper article, for Financial Times, to say that "the largest U.S. technology companies that dominate the Web" are "in denial" about their role in fostering terrorism.

Hannigan's underlying argument -- he writes that Islamic State uses social networks mainly for propaganda, appealing to recruitable youths with its uncanny tech and media savvy, and that it's better than its predecessors at securing its communications -- is banal: numerous news stories have been written about it, and someone who hasn't read them will miss the GCHQ chief's piece, too. What's more interesting is that it comes on the heels of a major speech by James Comey, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, repeating some of his arguments as if the two intelligence chiefs were speaking from the same book.

Here's Comey:

We need assistance and cooperation from companies to comply with lawful court orders, so that criminals around the world cannot seek safe haven for lawless conduct. We need to find common ground.

Here's Hannigan:

GCHQ and its sister agencies, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support from the private sector.

Comey:

Some have suggested there is a conflict between liberty and security. I disagree. At our best, we in law enforcement, national security, and public safety are looking for security that enhances liberty. When a city posts police officers at a dangerous playground, security has promoted liberty — the freedom to let a child play without fear.

Hannigan:

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the spectacular creation that is the world wide web, we need a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens. 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.

It is probably safe to say that Western intelligence chiefs have embarked on an uncharacteristic publicity campaign with the ostensible goal of getting tech companies to cooperate with them. For some reason, they are no longer happy with the old way of pushing through legislation, and court decisions, favorable to the intelligence community: Presenting their arguments behind closed doors to the sympathetic audience of politicians and judges who often believe it is their duty to uphold national security.

The intelligence chiefs also seemingly scorn the age-old practice of covertly recruiting people, including corporate executives, to their cause.

Why the sudden shift? Have legislators suddenly turned unfriendly, and are tech executives some new breed of radical idealists who cannot be persuaded in private to cooperate?

Call me a cynic, but I don't believe in any of this. Intelligence services do not need the help of the general public in enlisting all the cooperation in fighting terrorism that they need. In fact, Hannigan says the public is already on his side, unlike the tech companies:

I suspect most ordinary users of the internet are ahead of them: they have strong views on the ethics of companies, whether on taxation, child protection or privacy; they do not want the media platforms they use with their friends and families to facilitate murder or child abuse. They know the internet grew out of the values of western democracy, not vice versa. I think those customers would be comfortable with a better, more sustainable relationship between the agencies and the technology companies.

Indeed, the public has known of the tech companies' cooperation with the Internet giants from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden's revelations, but the social networks' audiences just kept growing. Snowden's warnings haven't even discouraged Islamic State from using Facebook and Twitter to advertise itself. Intelligence services' meddling has been accepted as an inevitable evil or dismissed as only targeting criminals, just as Comey and Hannigan would like. Their arguments are not likely to make people love them rather than just accept them, so that cannot be the publicity campaign's goal, either.

Rather, it seems most likely that the intelligence services and the tech giants -- which have denied cooperating with the NSA and its sister agencies -- are playing a media game designed to convince the public that there is tension between them. Moves such as Facebook's newly instituted support for the Tor anonymous network are part of this game, in which the networks try to convince the public they are safe to use, and the spies complain loudly about being left out in the cold. It's an invitation to terrorists and other criminals to join the fun, to believe they can be clever enough to escape close observation. The FBI and the GCHQ definitely don't want terrorists to dive into the Deep Web after Facebook and Twitter officially agree to cooperate: They will be that much harder to track down.

The spying game is long-term and ritualistic, and the intelligence chiefs' complaints and tech companies' denials are an important new ritual which we will see played out more and more often. I just hope nobody takes it seriously enough to introduce tougher censorship on the social networks: Analyzing propaganda is sometimes the only way to pick up grains of real information, as the intelligence services well know.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net