A caricature of Civil Service placement and rhetoric

The new director of GCHQ was announced earlier this year as Robert Hannigan, CMG (Cross of St Michael and St George, aka "Call Me God") replacing the incumbent Sir Iain Lobban, KCMG (Knight's Cross of St Michael and St George, aka "Kindly Call Me God"). Whereas Sir Iain was a 30 year veteran of GCHQ, working his way up from a language specialist post, Hannigan was an Oxford classicist - ironically at Wadham, one of the few socialist bastions of the university - and worked his way around various government communications and political director posts before landing a security/intelligence billet at the Cabinet office. Hannigan is almost a cliché of the professional civil servant.

Hannigan decided to write in the FT about why Facebook, Twitter and Google increasing user security was a Bad Thing:

The extremists of Isis use messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and a language their peers understand. The videos they post of themselves attacking towns, firing weapons or detonating explosives have a self-conscious online gaming quality. [...] There is no need for today’s would-be jihadis to seek out restricted websites with secret passwords: they can follow other young people posting their adventures in Syria as they would anywhere else.
Right - but the UK or US governments can already submit requests to gain access to specific information stored by Facebook, Google, Twitter et al. What Hannigan leaves out is: why is this not sufficient? The answer, of course, is that it's hard to know where to look. Far easier to cast a dragnet through Internet traffic, identify likely sources of extremism, and use intelligence based on their details to ask for specific data from Facebook, Google, Twitter et al. But for the UK in the first half of 2014, the UK issued over 2000 individual requests for data, covering an average of 1.3 people per request. How many terrorism-related arrests (never mind convictions) correspond to this - single digits? That's a pretty broad net for a very small number of actual offenders.

Hannigan subsequently received a bitchslap in Comment is Free from Libdem Julian Huppert:

Take the invention of the radio or the telephone. These transformed the nature of communication, allowing people to speak with one another across long distances far more quickly than could have ever been imagined. However, they also meant that those wishing to do us harm, whether petty criminals or terrorists, could communicate with each other much more quickly too. But you wouldn’t blame radio or phone manufacturers for allowing criminals to speak to each other any more than you would old Royal Mail responsible for a letter being posted from one criminal to another.
Good Lord, I'm agreeing with a Libdem MP writing in CiF. I need to have a lie down.

Hannigan is so dangerous in his new role because he's never really had to be accountable to voters (since he's not a politician), nor influenced by the experience and caution of the senior technical staff in GCHQ (since he never worked there). He can view GCHQ as a factory for producing intelligence to be consumed by the civil service, not as a dangerous-but-necessary-in-limited-circumstances intrusion into the private lives of UK citizens. After all, he knows that no-one is going to tap his phone or read his email.

Personally, I'd like to see a set of 10 MPs, selected by public lottery (much like the National Lottery draw, to enforce fairness) read in on GCHQ and similar agency information requests. They'd get to see a monthly summary of the requests made and information produced, and would be obliged to give an annual public report (restricted to generalities, and maybe conducted 6 months in arrears of the requests to give time for data to firm up) on their perception of the width of the requests vs information retrieved. That's about 40 Facebook personal data trawls per MP, which is a reasonably broad view of data without excessive work. Incidentally, I'd also be interested in a breakdown of the immigration status of the people under surveillance.


  1. I like your idea of using 10MPs for oversight but suspect there will be arguments over security clearance ie "not one of us".

    This interview was quite reassuring from "one of us": http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04mcp9k

    Its also another reason why we have to ensure the absolute independence of the judiciary.

  2. Simon: I suspect you're right, and when this happens we should listen carefully to their explanation before we explain back to them "THAT'S THE POINT!"


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