Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley branded web firms worth billions of pounds ‘irresponsible’ for providing secure communications to jihadists. The Scotland Yard chief said some companies have deliberately created software which prevents them accessing information if requested by the authorities. Others simply refuse to provide the content of messages or pledge to tip off the suspects about the State’s interest in their activities if they are approached.
Mr Rowley revealed police have lost track of some suspects because of ‘growing blind spots’ created by their technology.
And sensitive operations have been prolonged unnecessarily and investigators left to deal with ‘patchy’ information because of encrypted messaging products. Mr Rowley said his ‘greatest concern’ is how unwatched areas of the internet are providing ‘footholds for terrorism’. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), he said the ‘Achilles heel’ allows overseas terrorists to communicate in secret with conspirators on home soil. He said: ‘Our experience of social media and communications companies is of a very fragmented and highly variable level of cooperation, ranging from some who are very cooperative, those who are partially cooperative and those who are at the other end of the spectrum.
‘Some refuse to assist. For some it is also a part of their strategy - they design their products in full recognition that they will be unable to help us because of the way they have designed them. ‘And some simply undermine us by adopting a policy that if they supply data to us they will tell the subject that they have done that.’ He added: ‘From a policing perspective, any area which is no-go to police and intelligence agencies because we don't have the powers or the technology or the ability to reach there is a space that terrorists and criminals can operate and is of massive concern.’
Mr Rowley said there has been a growing ‘attitude’ of suspicion towards the authorities since the damaging leaks of U.S. traitor Edward Snowden. But he refused to ‘name and shame’ those responsible, saying it would simply ‘accelerate’ the move towards using them. It is widely known, however, that the security agencies are furious with some of the biggest names in the business including Apple, Facebook and Twitter.
Apple is an outspoken defender of encryption and has recently introduced it by default on mobile devices, making it impossible for even the company itself to access information. Facebook offers encrypted messaging for users who request it and Twitter has a policy of tipping off suspects if the authorities request information about them.
Last week, a 15-year-old boy from Blackburn was jailed for life for plotting to behead a police officer at an Anzac Day parade in Australia. The teenager used the encrypted messaging app Telegram to exchange thousands of messages with an 18-year-old jihadist in Melbourne. He also used Twitter to send vile messages and although the company shut down his accounts because of the extreme content, no-one passed the information to police. Mr Rowley said the same techniques are being used by organised criminals and paedophiles, with some child abusers managing to evade identification.
Asked if he would call the internet companies irresponsible, Mr Rowley replied: ‘Yes. They are creating a safe haven for terrorists and criminals to operate in. We are going to regret it if we do not try and turn this around quickly.’
More than 750 Britons are now believed to have travelled to Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq to fight, with around half returning home. A specialist team run by the Met which takes down extremist content from the internet is now removing 2,000 posts every month.
Mr Rowley said there is increasing evidence of militants preying on the vulnerable, including the young and the mentally ill.
He said that around 600 individuals are flagged up to the police as potential extremists by concerned teachers, work colleagues and mosque leaders every month. In the vast majority of cases there is ‘nothing to worry about’ but around 60 people are subjected to some kind of direct intervention by police, health workers or local authorities. MI5 boss Andrew Parker has called for more surveillance powers as he said social networks have a ‘responsibility’ to report suspicious activity.
He said internet giants should not just shut down accounts but inform the authorities of those with militant beliefs or who are making threats. Mr Parker also warned that online encryption and other technological advances could enable terror suspects to ‘go dark’ and disappear.