In reaction to the Financial Times op-ed by Richard Hannigan, Director of GCHQ, GNI Board Chair Mark Stephens wrote this letter to the editor, “Need to intrude must be demonstrated, not merely asserted” published November 5:

 Sir, Robert Hannigan, director of GCHQ, paints a bleak picture of tech-savvy terrorists, enabled by social media platforms that impede intelligence agencies’ efforts to protect the public (“The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice”, November 4).

He makes nearly no mention of the sophisticated apparatus of mass surveillance employed by his agency to monitor communications at a scope and scale unimaginable not long ago, from the wholesale siphoning of internet traffic from submarine cables to the collection of millions of webcam images from users unsuspected of any connection to terrorism. Nor does he mention lawful, proportionate and proper co-operation between law enforcement and the ICT sector.

Co-operation between technology companies and governments can and should play a role in addressing legitimate security threats online. But when it comes to handing over user data, or taking down content posted online, companies have an equally important responsibility to respect their users’ rights. That must entail a level of transparency and accountability that has been glaringly absent from GCHQ’s own conduct revealed by Edward Snowden. The necessity and proportionality of any intrusion into privacy or free expression must be demonstrated, not simply asserted in a “nanny knows best” way by an unaccountable state. There is also a compelling social need for meaningful independent oversight and due process to be built in to the authorising legal framework.

Putting human rights at the centre of the relationship between technology companies, society and governments would be a better way to begin a mature debate on privacy in the digital age than the flagrantly false allegation that social media companies are facilitating murder.

Mark Stephens

London E11, UK

Independent Chair, Global Network Initiative