Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the head of the ISC, has said companies like Facebook offer terrorists a "safe haven". Photo: Getty Images
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Making Facebook an arm of MI5 won't be a guarantee against terrorism

The security services want social networks like Facebook to be more forthcoming with material posted by users that might indicate a threat to national security. But the root causes of terrorism will never be fixed with data alone.

Today sees the publication of proposed new anti-terrorism bill, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014-15, ahead of its scheduled second reading in Parliament tomorrow, on 27 November. Yesterday, meanwhile, saw the Commons Select Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) publish its findings into the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, with specific blame laid at the feet of social media companies for not doing enough to prevent it. 

The report itself doesn't name the single company it considers most at fault, but it didn't take long for journalists to work out that Facebook was the alleged culprit in question. Most of the major papers today carry the damning verdict on their front pages with reference to Mark Zuckerberg's company, with the Mail reporting Rigby's sister stating Facebook had "blood on their hands" for their inaction, and that she held them "partly responsible" for his death. According to the report, some of Adebowale's activity on Facebook had come to the attention of site moderators, who had deleted some of his posts (and even his account) on more than a few occasions. According to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the ISC, had this information been passed on to MI5 the attack on Rigby could have been prevented.

Is this true? Well, yes, but also no, with caveats for either. This is the old conflict between what the state wants to know and what the individual wishes to keep private, but with the added complications that come with the internet, and social networks, and national sovereignty. 

Treating this as a clear binary between privacy and security isn't enough, as evidenced by Facebook making people unhappy on both sides of the divide for what it does: it actively monitors everything that its users do (so that it can make money off them and/or remove inappropriate/illegal content, upsetting privacy advocates in the process), but it also doesn't necessarily report posts that could signify an illegal activity to the relevant authorities (which annoys bodies like MI5, who would find that kind of content extremely useful). 

Put this in the context of the British government's attitude towards data collection over the last 15 or so years, and the conclusions of the ISC report make send. The UK political establishment, in all three main parties, tends heavily towards a policy of better safe than sorry, and of expanding data collection whenever a blind spot in intelligence gathering is exposed. For example, when the European Court of Justice ruled earlier this year that the EU-wide directive mandating the collection and retention of customer metadata by ISPs violated the human right to privacy, Parliament's response (with Tory, Labour and Lib Dem backing) was to rush through new legislation to reintroduce the mandate into British law as soon as possible. (Other countries, like Sweden, went the other way, even going so far as to opt not to charge those ISPs who had ignored the original directive.) 

Facebook, then, is a ripe, low-hanging fruit which, if plucked, would make the lives of spooks hugely easier. However, they can't - because Facebook is an American company which is only legally obligated to obey American warrants. That's the problem identified by Rifkind. Facebook may not have the legal obligation to hand over data like the type it had on Adebowale, but it certainly may have had the moral obligation. What's more troubling, though, is that the demand here is that Facebook chooses to hand over possible evidence of a user planning for a terror attack before a body like MI5 asks for it. (MI5 didn't ask Facebook about Adebowale's messages until after the attack, as far as we know.)

Follow this chain of thought any distance, however, and the problematic consequences are obvious. If Facebook accepted that any national government could demand the personal information of any user for matters of national security, that opens up all kinds of precedents for human rights abuses in nations where activists or persecuted groups use Facebook as a communication medium. (Arguably, that doesn't just mean, for example, Russia. It can also mean the UK, where many groups face surveillance from the police.)

This doesn't stop the British government from repeatedly trying to act as if US-based tech companies should listen to these kinds of requests, though, as evidenced by the Guardian's report on Silicon Valley's response to the ISC findings. In techno-libertarian California, not only is this kind of attitude seen as undemocratic, it's seen as part of a wider campaign against web freedom altogether. ("Nice fucking timing," said one executive, referring to the new bill published today.)

Privacy and civil rights campaigners tend to talk about this issue using the metaphor of physical mail - we can accept the need for opening the letters of someone under suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack, given the oversight of a judge and a warrant, but we otherwise expect nobody but the sender and the receiver to know what's in each envelope. That isn't a perfect analogy for what social networks are, though, and that's crucial here. Facebook, like every other social network of any notable size, has a business model based almost entirely on eavesdropping on the conversations its users are having with each other so they can try to show relevant ads. At the same time, things posted on them can be intended for an audience of a few people, but there are mechanisms in place that can mean a psuedo-private conversation can quickly spread among millions of other people.

The constant surveillance, even of private messages, is currently the focus of a large EU-wide civil suit, and the problem of corporate surveillance - which we legally, if not morally, consent to - is its own problem altogether. But I would argue that, when it comes to state surveillance, we should think of a site like Facebook in terms less like a postal service and more like a pub or cafe, with the staff coming around to pick up the empty mugs taking the role of the algorithms that listen in on our passing conversations. It's a service as much as a medium, and one which puts up ads on the walls to pay the rent.

In that kind of scenario, what should someone do if they hear a customer use the word "kill"? Or "explosion"? Facebook has 1.3 billion users each sending upwards of 500 billion messages a day - and while the site does have some sophisticated scanning methods for trying to keep on top of, for example, potential cases of child grooming, it is limited in its ability to parse nuance, or humour. The vast daily stream of data which comes from social media sites that has been flagged as needing human moderation has created, in turn, a huge outsourced moderation industry that is both horrible to those who have to work within it and still far from perfect at catching everything abhorrent (as ongoing issues with online harassment of women and people of colour have shown).

And don't forget the Twitter joke trial, which came about because a human being - not an algorithm - passed a tweet that was clearly a joke onto the police, just in case. Knowing how fallible these systems already are, it isn't reasonable to think that any solution to an intelligence gap should be piling yet more data onto the heap that is already there. Facebook may act like a private surveillance agency, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the best thing is to then combine its abilities with the state's - it won't double the innaccuracy, but it could well double the margin of error.

In the ISC's ideal world, Facebook would be an extension of the surveillance state - taking on the cost of identifying and assessing likely leads from among billions of posts each day, with the most promising passed on down the line. This is a fallacy that affects so much of the tech industry, that technology will fix everything, and everything in the physical world is reflected in how people act online. But MI5 still doesn't know how Adebolajo and Adebowale planned their attack, even now. The data was the missing link here, but it's dangerous to think it'll always be.

The ISC report makes it clear that both Adebolajo and Adebowale were under MI5 surveillance for years for a range of other real-world links to other suspected extremists, but Facebook gets the blame because the single message about killing a soldier could have alerted the authorities that he was a more serious risk. Yet what's also clear is that the government's approach to tackling the root causes of terrorism - and in trying to stop young men and women choosing to commit acts of terror - is failing. What's the better investment here: the removal of yet another layer of privacy the average citizen can expect, or spending some time and money on something which gets to the root of the issue?

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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