What’s an easier sell for politicians? Criticizing the security services for failing in their investigations or placing the blame for not stopping an atrocity on an internet company, a foreign internet company no less. The British parliamentary inquiry into whether the horrific murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by a pair of Islamic extremists was preventable has shifted the focus from MI5 and MI6 and onto Facebook.
The Intelligence and Security Committee report says it found “only one issue which could have been decisive” in preventing the attack – an exchange between one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, and an overseas radical known as Foxtrot discussing his intention to murder a soldier. It goes on to say:
“The part which could have made a difference was the company on whose platform the exchange took place. However, this company does not appear to regard itself as under any obligation to ensure that its systems identify such exchanges, or to take action or notify the authorities when its communications services appear to be used by terrorists. There is therefore a risk that, however unintentionally, it provides a safe haven for terrorists to communicate within.”
The report notes that the company closed other accounts used by Adebowale because automated systems deemed them to be associated with terrorism. It concludes that those accounts should have been reviewed and passed on to the authorities.
Elsewhere in its report though the committee details how Adebowale and the second killer, Michael Adebolajo, were identified in seven security service investigations. Adebolajo came to to MI5’s notice five years before the murder and was arrested in Kenya in connection with terrorism. He was placed under intensive MI5 surveillance in 2011 and 2012. MI5 stopped watching him just five weeks before the murder.
Meanwhile, Adebowale began as a minor figure in MI5’s investigations in 2011 before becoming more central to them in 2013. A day before the murder, MI5 requested that the home secretary sign off on more intensive surveillance against him.
Both of the killers were placed under significant surveillance by the security services for long periods, yet the report claims knowledge of one conversation on Facebook that would have made the difference.
Facebook is no more of a safe haven for terrorists than the Royal Mail or British Telecom. It’s a conduit for communication and one that has systems in place for flagging and removing offensive content. If it were to begin proactively providing communications to the British state, how could it justify not doing so to oppressive regimes whose definition of terrorist statements is far looser?
It’s much easier for politicians to point at the internet than it is to admit that intelligence work is incredibly difficult and sometimes the terrorists are not stopped in time. We’re not living in an episode of 24. As the old saying goes, the security services have to get it right every time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once.
We don’t expect BT to monitor every phone call or the Royal Mail to scan through every letter. To expect Facebook to act as an extension of the security services would be to further erode all our freedoms as part of the elusive chase for perfect security. The politicians were looking for a fall guy and Facebook simply fit the bill.
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