Digital surveillance has been with us now for quite a while. Ever since people began putting every aspect of their lives on social media, security agencies and governments realised these were gold mines of personal data. Indeed, prior to the leaks of Edward Snowdon, these agencies were living in a golden age of surveillance, with high level access to almost all major social media networks.
But unfortunately for the spies and the spooks, this time of easy access is over. As the public outcry increased against NSA digital snooping and the actions of security agencies that make up the so-called ‘five eyes’ (USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand), tech companies started to make their networks less accessible to the government. Some even went so far as to publicly pledge to protect their users data.
Unsurprisingly, security agencies aren’t happy. Just yesterday, the head of the UK’s GCHQ spy agency, Robert Hannigan, accused Silicon Valley tech companies of unwittingly aiding terrorists.
"However much they may dislike it, [US tech firms] have become the command and control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us,"
He then went on to say that user privacy was not a guaranteed right, and that these companies need to do more to stop extremists from using their networks. As part of this, he envisaged greater cooperation between Silicon Valley and varies spy agencies.
While it wasn’t explicitly stated is the speech, it is likely that his concerns were prompted by the rise of new, social-media savvy terrorist groups that have a strong presence online. The most successful of these, the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has a huge number of very active Twitter users, who use the site to spread propaganda, and recruit foreign fighters.
This is definitely a new frontier in the fight against terrorism, but it is also clear that Silicon Valley values privacy over a surveillance state. Given that the threat posed by terrorists is minimal compared to natural disasters or ordinary criminals, and yet we do not give common law enforcement and emergency services agencies massive data access, many see the requests from GCHQ or the NSA as merely organisational overreach. Nonetheless, this area is turning into a key battleground in the fight for user privacy, and at this stage the outcome could go either way.
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