5 Oct 2015

Terrorist hunters face awkward realities

Today’s speech by the Met Police’s head of counter-terrorism highlights some awkward realities for the police and intelligence services.

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley wants to track down and arrest terrorists. In these days of electronic communication, that inevitably involves getting info about their accounts from the companies they use to communicate.

AC Rowley hit out at those companies today, claiming that some take too long to co-operate with police requests, and some don’t co-operate at all, and in fact use their intransigence as a selling point.

Here’s awkward reality number one: the vast majority of these companies are based outside the UK.

This means that British police have limited ways to force them to play ball. They can get a UK court order, but if the company is based in the US, then UK police may have to get an American judge to back the order (and in some other countries, getting a UK court order enforced is all but impossible).

In addition, most tech companies have a laser-like focus one goal: growing customer numbers. Complying with requests from foreign law enforcement agencies is not a priority (especially since requests from UK police will join the same line as those from malign dictatorships).

The only reason a tech company will co-operate is if failing to do so costs them users. So why doesn’t AC Rowley name and shame the refuseniks?

Awkward reality number two: naming and shaming uncooperative tech companies will only help terrorists decide which services to use

Here’s a thought: why bother trying to convince the foreign companies themselves? Why don’t British police just call on GCHQ to grab the communications info as it flows in and out of the UK?

Awkward reality number three: more and more of us are using encryption (think that doesn’t apply to you? Do you use Facebook? Then you use encryption)

So even if GCHQ could harvest the info, it would be a meaningless soup of data simply showing, for example, that you used Facebook at a particular time and from a particular place, but not who you communicated with.

The only way for police to unscramble the traffic is to get the decryption code from the company handling the communications. But that leads you back to awkward reality number one.

AC Rowley today called for up-to-date legislation to tackle this. He may get the first part of his wish with the Investigatory Powers Bill expected some time over the next few months. Whether it’ll really sort out any of the issues above (and do so in a way that protects the rights of innocent people) is anyone’s guess.