Privacy has never been “an absolute right”, according to the new director of GCHQ, who has used his first public intervention since taking over at the helm of Britain’s surveillance agency to accuse US technology companies of becoming “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists.

Robert Hannigan said a new generation of freely available technology has helped groups like Islamic State (Isis) to hide from the security services and accuses major tech firms of being “in denial”, going further than his predecessor in seeking to claim that the leaks of Edward Snowden have aided terror networks.

GCHQ and sister agencies including MI5 cannot tackle those challenges without greater support from the private sector, “including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web”, Hannigan argued in an opinion piece written for the Financial Times just days into his new job.

Arguing that GCHQ needed to enter into the debate about privacy, Hannigan said: “I think we have a good story to tell. We need to show how we are accountable for the data we use to protect people, just as the private sector is increasingly under pressure to show how it filters and sells its customers’ data.

“GCHQ is happy to be part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age. But privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.”

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