ISPA says GCHQ's description of the Internet as a 'command and control centre for terrorists' is ill-judged

The opinion piece in the Financial Times by the new head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, marks his first attempt to enter the debate on communications data capabilities, but ISPA feels the mischaracterisation of the Internet as a ‘command and control centre’ for terrorists is wrong and ill-judged.

Following the Snowden revelations and the exponential growth of digital communications, it is widely agreed that a review of capabilities is needed with a full public debate to determine the balance between the right to privacy and need for security. For this debate to proceed properly, the security services, law enforcement and Government have to be more open and transparent about existing capabilities.  This is why we welcome the Investigatory Powers Review led by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, the current Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry and the legal challenges being heard at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

The Internet has opened amazing opportunities for communication and business and transformed how we live our day-to-day lives. To mischaracterise it as a tool for terrorists is short-sighted and does not take into account the ability to, for example, challenge extremism through a counter-narrative. Internet companies take their responsibilities seriously and have and will work with authorities to tackle unlawful activity. Encryption services and tools are increasing to boost public confidence in the Internet to protect against cyber-attacks and make it harder for hackers to access personal information. Government itself recently brought in new, stronger encryption services through the Cabinet Office to allow for more secure information sharing.

The Snowden revelations changed the landscape: existing oversight mechanisms were found to be not fit for purpose and there was a lack of accountability. This has to be the starting point for reform. If greater or clearer powers are needed, the case needs to be made via thorough consultation and legislative proposals should be placed in Parliament for further scrutiny. We are not arguing that the agencies and law enforcement should not have access to data, but this must be proportionate and based on a clear legal framework with strong oversight.

Public trust and confidence in online services is of fundamental importance. Ultimately, the public will be the arbiters of where the line should be drawn between privacy and security. For this to happen an honest and frank debate is required based on the full facts, the opinion piece from GCHQ falls short of this.

ISPA's response to the Investigatory Powers Review can be found here.