MI5 chief Andrew Parker steps out of the shadows to make social media plea

MI5 director general Andrew Parker gives first live interview to "increase understanding" of intelligence agency's work – and suggests social media firms have an "ethical responsibility" to report terror concerns

The head of MI5 has used the first ever live interview by a British security chief to suggest that social media companies have an “ethical responsibility” to report communications relating to terrorism.

Speaking on the Today programme, MI5 director general Andrew Parker questioned why, if internet companies could suspend accounts for inappropriate content, they could not bring forward relevant information to the authorities.

“It goes to the question of the ethical responsibility of these companies for the communications and the data that they hold and they carry, and this question comes up in the realm of child sexual exploitation, terrorism, other forms of crime,” he said.

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“I think there is a real question about whether companies holding information of that sort, under what arrangements they should come forward to the authorities and share and report it.”

The government has pledged to bring forward draft plans for new surveillance laws to overhaul the legal framework under which MI5 operates.

A bid to introduce a Communications Data Bill – branded a "snooper’s charter’ by critics  –  in the last parliament was blocked by the Liberal Democrats amid concerns about the civil liberties implications.

Parker said he welcomed the move to modernise the legal framework, and stressed his belief that MI5 needed more powers to monitor suspects’ online activities.

“We need to be able to do in the modern age what we’ve always done through our history in being able to find and stop people who threaten the UK and mean harm to the public,” he said.  

“And that means that we need to be able to monitor the communications of terrorists, spies and others; we need to be able to obtain data about their communications; we need to be able to obtain other information about them.”

Speaking on same programme, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties group Liberty, renewed her call for stronger legal safeguards to prevent "blanket surveillance" of the public's communications.

But she said Parker did not appear to have recognised public concern over privacy raised by US security analyst Edward Snowden's decision to shed light on mass surveillance techniques used by authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

"There was no concession at all that the agencies and the authorities had done anything wrong in recent years," Chakrabarti said.

"Now that's just not realistic in the light of the 'dodgy dossier' [making the case for the invasion of Iraq], involvement in the extraordinary rendition programme, and in the light of Edward Snowden's revelations on blanket surveillance, not of targeted suspects, but of the entire population and the fact that that happened without parliamentary authority, let alone judicial  authorisation or even public debate." 

"Increase understanding"

Although Parker has made a series of public speeches in recent years, intelligence bosses have traditionally shunned the media spotlight. In 2013, the MI5 chief appeared alongside his Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and MI6 counterparts in an unprecedented hearing of parliament's intelligence and security committee.

Parker said that while MI5 had to ensure secrecy around its operational work, he believed there was place for intelligence chiefs to act as advocates for the agencies' position.

"I think there is a role in society today for people like me to help increase understanding of the nature of the work and the sorts of threats that are around, what it is necessary for us to do, and the way in which we are focused only on the people who mean us harm as the discussion on privacy moves on," he said.

"And I'd like people to understand that we welcome the idea that there is clear legislation and oversight that frames what we do. Because that's what we believe in in MI5."


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