Last year in London two ‘radicalized’ men brutally murdered Lee Rigby, an off duty British Army soldier, then stayed near the body shouting jihadist slogans until they were wounded and arrested by a police firearms team.
Despite the fact that UK anti-terrorism agencies were aware of these men, they completely failed to prevent this horrific incident. So far so horrible, but the story took an alarming and unexpected twist this week when publication of the official Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) 191 page report on the incident almost completely exonerated the intelligence agencies involved (MI5 and MI6), who had blatantly failed to do their job properly, and instead blamed Facebook – accusing the social network of being a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists.
The justification for this accusation is that back in December 2012, one of the suspects (who was being monitored by MI5 at the time but was considered a low level threat) suggested to a shadowy overseas contact known as Foxtrox that he wanted to kill a soldier.
According the government, Facebook should have been aware of this, and has ‘no justification’ for not reporting the threat to the UK intelligence services.
On the face of it, the notion that a multinational company with over 1.2 billion users should act as an intelligence agency spying on its users (Facebook did in fact close 4 or the accused’s 11 Facebook accounts for suspected terrorist activity), or that the UK government has a right to demand data belonging to foreign companies, and which is stored on foreign servers be handed over is preposterous.
Some points to consider are:
- With such a huge user base, Facebook detects criminal behavior (such as detecting pedophiles – information it does hand over to the relevant authorities) using algorithms, with no (or very few) individuals monitoring posts. It is arguable that Facebook should have informed MI5 about these account closures, but it is doubtful that any actual person was aware of the specifics of the threat made, and MI5 was anyway aware that the individual represented a terrorist threat
- Even if they could effectively police their networks, do we really Facebook and other social media companies taking on the role of global policemen and monitoring in detail everything we do online?
- If Britain can demand that foreign companies hand over data that has never been stored in the UK, can Russia or China demand the same from UK companies?
If Facebook is to blame for terrorism then presumably so are Twitter (used to recruit radicalized fighters heading for Syria), YouTube (used by ISIS for often gruesome propaganda purposes), and pretty much any social media platform. The UK government seems to fail to understand that such platforms are simply tools, and like a hammer they can be used for good or ill.
In bemoaning the fact that the UK’s laws (most notably the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA)) do not allow the intelligence services to demand content from overseas internet companies, the British government betrays its obsessive need to know and collect everything everyone does all the time, something that it has already proved that if it cannot do legally, it is more than happy obtain by other means.
Under the government’s logic, postmen should steam open every letters they deliver, and every park bench and pub table should be bugged. However, what the government fails to appreciate is that the reason Lee Rigby’s killers were not detected earlier is that too much information is available, not too little!
As it is, detecting threats is like finding drops of water in a vast sea of information, and trying to determine what information is meaningful amongst the almost infinite amounts of data already available is extremely difficult (to say the least).
The government’s (and this by no means applies only to the UK government) obsessive desire to know EVERYTHING is not only an affront and fundamental assault on all notions of privacy, democracy, and personal liberty, but is actively counterproductive to its stated aims, as more surveillance makes detecting terrorists and other criminals harder not easier.
Then again, this all assumes that the government actually cares a fig about terrorism per se, and is not just using the threat of it (a classic ‘unwinnable war’) to gather ever more draconian and undemocratic levels of power unto itself, with the aim of convincing a scared population into meekly accepting the ‘protection’ of an ever more Orwellian police state…