MI5 chief: Stronger encryption will weaken intelligence capacity to counter extremists

Ken McCallum condemns social media companies for creating a breeding ground for radicals

MI5 director general Ken McCallum says security services will struggle to investigate hundreds of British extremists after social media companies introduce stronger encryption services. Reuters
MI5 director general Ken McCallum says security services will struggle to investigate hundreds of British extremists after social media companies introduce stronger encryption services. Reuters

Security services will struggle to investigate hundreds of British extremists who fought for ISIS after social media companies introduce stronger encryption services, the new head of MI5 has said.

Companies such as Facebook are providing end-to-end encryption potentially used by child abusers and criminals as well as terrorists, Ken McCallum said in his first interview as MI5’s director general.

He said 80 per cent of terrorist plots are attributed to Islamist extremists with more people being indoctrinated online during the pandemic.

But it is the surveillance of radicals who returned from fighting for ISIS that present a major concern for Britain’s domestic intelligence service.

“Over the past decade, in Syria there were more than 950 UK-based individuals who headed out there to join the Islamic State and other groups, with a huge set of consequences for the risk that we've been seeking to manage ever since,” Mr McCallum told Times Radio.

He said events in the Middle East over the past few decades had “massively influenced” people living in Britain, potentially radicalising some, although MI5 had foiled at least 19 major terrorist attacks over the past four years.

But in an outspoken attack on Facebook and other social media, he said their proposals for stronger end-to-end encryption posed "a real risk for us and that there's a real conversation that has not yet reached a satisfactory place and that's a great concern to me”.

A window into terrorists' living rooms

The 46-year-old intelligence chief said MI5 didn't want to pry into normal citizens’ lives or for Britain to become a “surveillance state”, but he needed the ability to prevent atrocities.

“Our job is to deal with a one in a million case where the living room is a terrorist living room and they may be building a bomb or filming a martyrdom video before some airline-devastating plot that they might be planning.”

He said the encryption was giving “terrorists or people who are organising child sexual abuse online, some of the worst people in our society – a free pass where they know that nobody can see into what they are doing in those private living rooms.”

He called on social media bosses to allow the security services access to the terrorist and criminal conversations, “but just in those exceptional cases when the risks to the public are acute”.

Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy plans for Messenger and Instagram meant that terrorists could send illegal material and plot attacks without being visible to law enforcement, Mr McCallum said.

“Decisions taken in California boardrooms are every bit as relevant to our ability to do our jobs as decisions taken in Afghanistan or Syria.”

Extremists had been prevented from conducting attacks during lockdown, which had had a “suppressive effect on some terrorist networks” and had curtailed overseas travel, but more people had been indoctrinated online while “stewing on their sofas”.

In its defence, Facebook said that strong encryption was essential to keep everyone safe from hackers and criminals.

“We have no tolerance for terrorism or child exploitation on our platforms and are building strong safety measures into our plans, including using information like behavioural patterns and user reports to combat such abuse,” a Facebook spokesman said.

“We will continue to work with industry experts, law enforcement and security agencies to combat criminal activity and to keep people safe across all our platforms.”

Published: May 21, 2021 07:03 PM

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