A spy’s deceptive complaints

In an editorial, the New York Times says: Robert Hannigan, the new director of Britain’s electronic intelligence agency, threw down quite a gauntlet with an op-ed article in The Financial Times arguing that the ever more secure communications services provided by the American technology companies that dominate the web have become the “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.” He is not the first spy to complain that post-Snowden concerns over privacy, including increased encryption on the web, have put serious constraints on fighting terrorism, though his phrasing is the toughest yet.

Mr. Hannigan primarily makes two points. One, quite familiar, is that the Islamic State has been spectacularly successful in using the web to promote itself, intimidate enemies and radicalize recruits. The other is that tougher privacy controls have enabled the terrorists to conceal their operations, while impeding “lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies.” But the crocodile tears of the intelligence chiefs overlook the fact that before those barriers were put in place, the United States National Security Agency and Mr. Hannigan’s GCHQ misused their powers for an illegal dragnet surveillance operation. The technology companies are doing their job in protecting people’s private data precisely because the intelligence agencies saw fit to rummage through that data.

Mr. Hannigan’s argument overlooks the many legal avenues intelligence agencies have to seek data. Demanding that the technology companies leave “back doors” open to their software or hardware also potentially assists Chinese, Russian and other hackers in accessing reams of data.

Still, there is a terrorist threat; it is dispersed around the world and it does have a global tool on the web and in social networks. At the same time, there are powerful reasons for technology companies to protect the economic interests, personal privacy and civil liberties of their clients.

The ways to solve potential conflicts include requiring court orders for data mining, restrictions on specific practices such as exploiting the back doors, and far stronger oversight of the intelligence community. They do not include blaming technology companies for doing their job.

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