US tech firms help terrorists, says new UK spy chief. Maybe, but they also help the rest of us.

The new head of British spy agency GCHQ has attacked Silicon Valley tech firms for aiding terrorism by providing greater security for their customers in the wake of Edward Snowden’s surveillance leaks.

Robert Hannigan said in a late Monday Financial Times article (registration required) that modern tech services run out of the U.S. have become “the command and control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us,” so they should agree to “better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now.” This, he said, should not be delayed by debate over privacy.

Hannigan also noted the web’s propaganda potential for groups like Islamic State, said privacy was not an absolute right, and claimed most people would be fine with spy agencies such as his having a more “sustainable” relationship with tech firms.

More from Hannigan’s pen:

Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states now come as standard. These are supplemented by freely available programs and apps adding extra layers of security, many of them proudly advertising that they are ‘Snowden approved’. There is no doubt that young foreign fighters have learnt and benefited from the leaks of the past two years.

I see two themes here: an echoing of the FBI’s stateside efforts to get politicians to force tech firms to allow spies and cops to bypass tech firms’ newly heightened encryption efforts (he named no names, but Google’s email encryption push and Apple’s device encryption moves spring to mind); and a bolstering of the U.K. government’s desire to block extremist online material.

On the latter point, well, it’s no shock that people use the internet to recruit people to their ideology, though does the U.K. really want to follow Russia’s lead? But on the former, it cannot be said often enough that it’s impossible to clamp down on terrorist uses of technology without clamping down on the freedoms of everyone else.

One more time: If you intentionally break the digital locks that we all use, we are all made less, not more, safe. It is absurd and incorrect to think that you can insert a backdoor — a flaw in security — and expect it to be exploitable by only one entity. If we all have broken locks, we are all more vulnerable not only to foreign intelligence agencies, but also to non-state hackers.

I don’t want to trivialize the threat posed by groups such as Islamic State, or by pedophiles (also referenced, naturally, in Hannigan’s piece), but we have to recognize what the spies are calling for as a trade-off, and consider whether it is worth it. Should we give up our privacy and security in the hope that these threats can be mitigated — terrorism and pedophilia will never be defeated as such — or should we rather opt for personal liberty and security?

Personally, I don’t think these are proportionally great enough threats to our societies to make the trade-off. I realize that others may hold a different view, but I see a greater risk in accepting the intrusion of surveillance — a form of control — into the many aspects of our lives that we’re taking online.

The tech firms recognize that many people share this view, and they understand that people who don’t trust the privacy and security of technology will end up not using it so much. They’re staking their future bottom line on the voice of the people, who they believe will opt for free expression and personal security. If they’re wrong, where are the popular protests against their aiding of nastiness?

No-one can undo Snowden’s education of the general public about the mass surveillance potential, and reality, of online life. Now it’s up to societies to choose whether they want to submit to that control or try forge a different path. Hannigan’s clearly pushing the former option. Whether democratic societies agree or not, should be a matter for the people to decide.