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Metropolitan Police anti-terror boss slams 'immature' social media sector

Published 05/10/2015

Mark Rowley said some social media companies refused to assist counter-terror police
Mark Rowley said some social media companies refused to assist counter-terror police

Social media companies are "undermining" counter terrorism investigations by telling suspects when police have requested their communications data, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has said.

Mark Rowley, the UK's most senior counter-terrorism police officer, said some companies simply refuse to assist the police when it comes to handing over data.

He warned that the police are dealing with a "growing number of blind spots" and that difficulties relating to obtaining communications data and encryption mean that "all counter terrorism operations are now more patchy in their intelligence than we have ever seen before".

"Our experience of social media and communications companies is of a very fragmented and highly variable level of cooperation, ranging from some who are very cooperative, those who are partially cooperative and those who are at the other end of the spectrum," he warned during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute.

"Some refuse to assist. For some it is also a part of their strategy - they design their products in full recognition that they will be unable to help us because of the way they have designed them.

"And some simply undermine us by adopting a policy that if they supply data to us they will tell the subject that they have done that."

Mr Rowley said social media is an "immature business sector" and that the way some companies behave would not be tolerated in other sectors.

He said: "In the real world, if someone was to open a shopping centre in London with a fantastic new business model which made them large amounts of profit but also provided a safe operating environment for criminals or terrorists we wouldn't allow it.

"Yet to some degree that is what is going on in the virtual world."

Meanwhile, criminals and terrorists are now "better educated" about where the police and intelligence agencies may have "blind spots".

"From a policing perspective, any area which is no-go to police and intelligence agencies because we don't have the powers or the technology or the ability to reach there is a space that terrorists and criminals can operate and is of massive concern," he said.

The assistant commissioner also detailed the scale of work currently being undertaken by the Met in the fight against terror.

He revealed police are dealing with about 600 referrals from across the country every month relating to specific concerns about individuals.

The UK's terror threat level is currently set at "severe" which means an attack is "highly likely" and Mr Rowley said six terror plots have been disrupted in the last years.

He also noted there has been a significant increase in the number of people being arrested on suspicion of terror offences in the UK - currently about 90 to 110 people every quarter.

Mr Rowley said the Met has a "growing Achilles heel" which if left unaddressed will "slowly diminish our ability to keep the public safe".

To remedy the situation the police need "up-to-date legislation" that enables them to "operate in the modern digital age", improved cooperation internationally across different jurisdictions and the "constructive, practical help" of social media companies.

Mr Rowley was asked during a question and answer session whether it was time to "name and shame" social media companies who do not cooperate with the police.

"The problem is, if I was to say here 'if criminals use application X then it's fine because we have a great relationship with the company and if they use application Y we are completely stuffed', then you could guarantee what criminals and terrorists would do the next day," he explained.

"That's the difficult issue that we are wrestling with."

The assistant commissioner also confirmed there have been cases where police have not pursued a data request because they knew the social media company would tell the suspect.

The Press Association asked the assistant commissioner if he believes some social media companies are being irresponsible in terms of their lack of cooperation with the police.

"Absolutely," he said.

And when asked if it is the majority or the minority of social media companies who are lacking in cooperation, Mr Rowley said: "In my speech I said there are some who are helpful, some who are partially helpful and some who are very unhelpful.

"The number in each of those pots is not insignificant so there is a spread across there."

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