Social media firms blamed for ‘undermining’ counter-terrorism investigations

The reluctance of social media networks to share data on their users and co-operate fully with the police is “undermining” counter-terrorism efforts, warned a high-ranking member of the Metropolitan police.

The social network is fast-becoming a “no-go” area for police and intelligence agencies, one where they do not have powers or the technology to monitor for terroist activity, said Mark Rowley, the country’s most senior counter-terrorism officer.

His critique of the likes of Facebook and Twitter brings into sharp focus the debate worldwide about surveillance and privacy. It comes amid reports that a new counter-terrorism bill will be brought before parliament imminently, which would intensify arguments for the the UK’s sector forces being granted the ability to gather and track digital activity.

It’s an ability Rowley, who was speaking at the defence and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute yesterday (5 October), believes needs to be given to security officers who face more “blind spots” than ever before when tracking potential extremists. Currently, the level of co-operation from social networks is “variable”, he continued, ranging from “very competitive” to the “other end of the spectrum”.

“Some refuse to assist,“ he added. “For some, it is also 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 use they will tell the subject that they have done that.”

It’s an attack on the moves by technology firms like Google and Facebook to become more transparent in the eyes of their users. Those companies have come under fire from users for the amount of data they are alleged to have shared with third parties in the past, pushing them to be clearer with people about how their information is being used.

However, Rowley branded the social media space as an “immature business sector”. He added. “In the real world, if someone was to open a shopping centre in London with a fantastic new business model which made them large amounts of profit but also provided a safe operating environment for criminals of terrorists we wouldn’t allow it.

“Yet to some degree that is what is going on in the virtual world.”

The counter-intelligence boss urged for “up-to-date legislation” that would let police “operate in the modern digital age", improve cooperation internationally and require the “constructive, practical help” of social media companies.

However, Facebook’s director of policy for the UK and Ireland Simon Milner told Panorama last night (5 October) it didn’t track terrorist content but assured that it had become a “hostile place” for terrorists.

“We have made important strides in the last three years to ensure that Facebook is a hostile place for terrorists... and in rare circumstances where we find somebody who is organising activities which may pose an imminent risk to life, then we can and will report those people to the authorities, “ he added.

“Facebook doesn’t track terrorist content... However, what we do do is rely on reports from the 1.5 billion people using Facebook to let us know when they see things on Facebook that shouldn’t be there, including terrorist activity.

Milner added: “There is no algorithm that finds terrorist content.”

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