Former UK GCHQ Head of Signals Intelligence "Google and Facebook ‘a danger to democracy’"
and Facebook ‘a danger to democracy’
Internet giants have more personal information than any intelligence agency has ever had or should have, according to a former director of Britain’s intelligence and signals agency.
David Omand said profiting from information that people freely gave to companies such as Google and Facebook was “truly dangerous and a major threat to democracy”. In contrast to “extraordinarily strictly regulated” British intelligence agencies, the power of the internet companies was uncontrolled.
“Nobody has worked out how to control the private use of our information,” he said.
“It’s a fact that the internet companies know more about me, you, everyone in the hall than any intelligence agency ever could or should know.”
Sir David, who was in charge at the signals intelligence organisation GCHQ in the 1990s, likened the rise of the internet to the story about blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for becoming the best musician in the world.
“Then he had to pay for his success — and the internet is like that,” he said. “It was all wonderful to start with, all open, the bad guys weren’t there.
“Now the downside of the internet is very serious.
“It is very dangerous, dangerous for children, dangerous for anyone trying to do financial business.”
Sir David accepted that the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which, for example, compelled a senior judge to countersign any surveillance warrant, had left Britain’s agencies like “going on a football pitch with eight players and a goalkeeper with his hands tied”.
He said while there had been qualms within the intelligence community, “in a democracy you are entitled to know what kinds of methods are being used to keep us safe”.
“The big revelation over the last couple of years has not been about government intelligence agencies,” he added, “it has been about the private sector.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal — in which the company used the personal data of Facebook users for political advertising, for which Facebook was fined — showed how information was becoming the “feedstock for political campaigning”.
He said people “freely give our personal data in return for having an internet free at the point of use so we can do our searches and so on”.
“And that information is monetised, and that is the feedstock for political campaigning, where a political party can send different messages to different groups of people because they already knew what individuals likely political preferences are,” Sir David said.
“This is truly dangerous. I think it is a major threat to democracy and it is uncontrolled.”
Sir David said Britain was vulnerable to a cyberattack, adding: “It is difficult to give any assurance that the attackers will not get through and cause damage, perhaps damage which they were not even intending.’’
Richard Aldrich, who has written a history on GCHQ, said the agency’s challenge over the next decade was to tackle the threats posed by everyday items that were internet-enabled.
“They have to worry about everything we buy in the shop that costs under £10 that connects to the internet,” he said. “Because the degree of cybersecurity is very weak.”
He envisaged a scenario in which 10 internet-enabled fridges across Los Angeles could be “simultaneously set on fire by hackers”.
“Who needs an air force when you have the internet of things? This is very, very alarming and difficult territory,’’ he said.