The arrogance and intransigence of some of the technology companies in the fight against terrorism has become extraordinary. We learned this week that one of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers, Michael Adebowale, had Facebook accounts closed. Apparently, this was because it was feared he was using them for terrorist activities. No one told the authorities. Even now, our security services — which have helped prevent 40 attacks since 2005 — have not been given full details of what Adebowale was doing online.
What makes the foot-dragging of tech companies inexcusable is that we know they could do more to help prevent terrorist attacks because of what they are doing to combat child sex exploitation. Mark Field, a member of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, says that there’s ‘no doubt that if Adebowale had been preparing a paedophile attack not a terrorist one, the authorities would have been alerted’.
If an online account is closed because a communication service provider believes that it is linked to terrorism, this information should routinely be handed to the authorities, as it is in cases of child sexual exploitation. It might be difficult for technological reasons to hand over more detail. But it does seem odd that an industry defined by its refusal to accept things are impossible is so willing to cite technical impossibility on this matter. An algorithm that could detect potential terrorist activity is an even worthier candidate for one of Google’s ‘moon shots’ than the driverless car.
Technology companies also hide behind the idea that if they fully co-operated with the British government, they would have to do the same with the Chinese and the Iranians. But this excuse fails to distinguish between a liberal, democratic government and authoritarian states.
There are those who argue that if the government wants the technology companies to do more, it should put its requirements in statute. But there are many things that companies are not compelled by law to do that we hope they would do as responsible citizens. For example, if someone repeatedly went into a garden centre and brought a large amount of fertiliser without displaying any interest in planting, we might hope that staff would mention it to the police.
The technology companies’ defence is also undercut by the fact that so many of them are deliberately making users’ messages harder for law enforcement to intercept. On its website, Apple boasts that ‘it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data’ from devices such as iPhones and iPads that use its new operating system. The sheer irresponsibility of this is breathtaking. It means that even with a warrant, the authorities cannot access photos, contacts and emails from these devices.
The fundamental question is what we want the internet to be. Tech libertarians say that the great thing about the internet is that it is beyond the reach of any government. Think of many of the governments in the world and it is easy to see the appeal of this idea. But the truth is that any place beyond the reach of the law is dangerous: ungoverned spaces are a threat whether they are physical or digital.