The GCHQ boss is wrong. We can have both security and privacy

The Snowden revelations made it clear how far GCHQ and other agencies had gone in hoovering up information about all of us, collecting ever-increasing amounts of hay in the search for a handful of needles. What we need is better magnets, not more and more hay.

Many of us hoped that the revelations would lead to efforts to improve both privacy and security. That’s why I and others pushed so hard for a full review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) and all other legislation governing surveillance, and why we demanded more transparency reporting and a new privacy and civil liberties oversight board. GCHQ and the people who work there do an important job, but they let themselves down when they over-reach.

The first article written by the new director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, for the FT, is deeply worrying. One might expect Hannigan to begin his new post on a conciliatory note — recognising the need for reform and reaching out to the public. But his article does precisely the opposite. In an extremely controversial piece, he instead blames digital companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook for the ills of the world. He has chosen to attack people who are rightly concerned about people’s civil liberties in this digital age.

No one denies that the work GCHQ does is extremely important. Our intelligence services clearly play a fundamental and crucial role in keeping us safe. But Hannigan’s argument contains a number of serious flaws.

To begin with, he blames technology for the fact that groups such as Islamic State (Isis) now use social media and the web to coordinate their terrorist activity. But to blame technology is short-sighted. The nature of technology is that it can be used for productive as well as destructive purposes.