Spooks behaving badly

Like many in the tech world, I was appalled to see how the security and intelligence agencies’ spin doctors managed to blame Facebook for Lee Rigby’s murder. It may have been a convenient way of diverting attention from the many failings of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ documented by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its report yesterday, but it will be seriously counterproductive. So I wrote an op-ed in the Guardian.

Britain spends less on fighting online crime than Facebook does, and only about a fifth of what either Google or Microsoft spends (declaration of interest: I spent three months working for Google on sabbatical in 2011, working with the click fraud team and on the mobile wallet). The spooks’ approach reminds me of how Pfizer dealt with Viagra spam, which was to hire lawyers to write angry letters to Google. If they’d hired a geek who could have talked to the abuse teams constructively, they’d have achieved an awful lot more.

The likely outcome of GCHQ’s posturing and MI5’s blame avoidance will be to drive tech companies to route all the agencies’ requests past their lawyers. This will lead to huge delays. GCHQ already complained in the Telegraph that they still haven’t got all the murderers’ Facebook traffic; this is no doubt due to the fact that the Department of Justice is sitting on a backlog of requests for mutual legal assistance, the channel through which such requests must flow. Congress won’t give the Department enough money for this, and is content to play chicken with the Obama administration over the issue. If GCHQ really cares, then it could always pay the Department of Justice to clear the backlog. The fact that all the affected government departments and agencies use this issue for posturing, rather than tackling the real problems, should tell you something.

2 thoughts on “Spooks behaving badly

  1. It’s also worth noting that Facebook (and other social networks) do already comply with requests for data from law enforcement. For the first sixth months of 2014. UK law enforcement submitted 2,110 requests and of these data was returned for 71.68% of them (1512).

    In terms of number of granted requests, the UK is the third in the world (behind the US with 12,370 and India with 2,319). In terms of the proportion of granted requests, of the 7 countries which submitted at least 1,000 requests, the UK on 71.68% is only behind the US on 80.15%.

    So overall the UK seems to be very successful in getting data from Facebook; I expect because of the good relationships developed with law enforcement. Blaming Facebook for the consequences of an intelligence failure can only harm this relationship.

  2. If GCHQ really cares, then it could always pay the Department of Justice to clear the backlog.

    Given that (according to the Snowden leaks) GCHQ receives funding from the US government, it would be amusing if it did.

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