Facebook has been identified as the company accused by the government of failing to spot a message on its site which indicated that a terrorist attack, the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, was to take place.
The revelation comes after the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), published 200-page report (PDF) investigating whether Rigby’s murder could have been prevented.
The report was heavily critical of internet companies Facebook, Google, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and Twitter, after the ISC wrote to them asking for information on their policies on monitoring communications and alerting the authorities about any terrorist activity.
One of these companies, which was not identified in the report but has now been revealed as Facebook, is blamed for failing to spot a specific message by one of the murderers, Michael Adebowale, sent to an unnamed third party in which he expressed a desire to murder a soldier.
In response a Facebook spokesperson said: "Like everyone else, we were horrified by the vicious murder of fusilier Lee Rigby.
"We don’t comment on individual cases but Facebook’s policies are clear: we do not allow terrorist content on the site and take steps to prevent people from using our service for these purposes."
The ISC report said that the intelligence agencies could not have seen this message unless a very specific set of actions had been carried out.
However, it added that the internet company over which the message was broadcast should have seen it and flagged it.
“The party which could have made a difference was the company on whose platform the exchange took place,” the report said.
“However, this company does not appear to regard itself as under any obligation to ensure that its systems identify such exchanges, or to take action or notify the authorities when its communications services appear to be used by terrorists.
“There is therefore a risk that, however unintentionally, it provides a safe haven for terrorists to communicate within.”
The ISC report went on to say that the failure of all the web companies to monitor communications is a major help for terrorists, and that the privacy of law-abiding citizens must not stop such monitoring taking place.
“Whilst there may be practical difficulties involved, the companies should accept they have a responsibility to notify the relevant authorities when an automatic trigger indicating terrorism is activated, and allow the authorities, whether US or UK, to take the next step,” it said.
“We further note that several of the companies attributed the lack of monitoring to the need to protect their users’ privacy. However, where there is a possibility that a terrorist atrocity is being planned, that argument should not be allowed to prevail.”
Writing in The Telegraph the chairman of the ISC, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, said he was in no doubt that web firms must take more responsibility in helping to stop terrorist attacks.
"Internet companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and many others need to play their part in alerting authorities to people who may be terrorists. That is as essential in Britain as it is in the US and elsewhere," he added.
Cheap political points
However, the report has been heavily criticised by Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock, who accused the government of scoring "cheap political points".
“The government should not use the appalling murder of fusilier Rigby as an excuse to justify the further surveillance and monitoring of the entire UK population," he said.
“The committee is particularly misleading when it implies that US companies do not co-operate, and it is quite extraordinary to demand that companies proactively monitor email content for suspicious material.
"Internet companies cannot and must not become an arm of the surveillance state."
Killock added that, if the government does pursue this idea of blanket surveillance, which indiscriminately monitors everyone rather than focusing on terrorists, the erosion of civil liberties will only continue.
“Mass surveillance erodes the basic trust between citizen and state by treating us all as suspects," he said.
"If the government keeps finding new ways to justify indiscriminate whole population trawls, it will be fair to say that we have lost our liberty and the terrorists have won.”
The deputy director of Privacy International, Eric King, was equally critical of the report, saying that making technology companies police the internet is a hopeless idea.
"Law enforcement should have powers to intercept and acquire communications when necessary, but deputising private companies to do it for them is not the right answer," he said.
"It is not appropriate for internet services - who handle some of our most private and sensitive correspondence - to be snooping through that data for the police, anymore than it would be for the postman to snoop through peoples' letters."
The publication of the report comes a day before the government is expected to outline laws to monitor people based on their IP address, even though criminals could easily circumvent such practices.
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