Facebook outed as host of Lee Rigby murder chat


Facebook has been outed as the unnamed internet company accused of failing to flag details of an online conversation between one of Fusilier Lee Rigby's killers and a fellow extremist where he outlined plans to kill a solider.

A report published yesterday by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament into the circumstances that led to the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 said an "unnamed "internet company could have taken steps to prevent it, and the BBC has since confirmed the company in question is social networking giant Facebook.

According to the ISC document, one of the perpetrators of the crime - Michael Adebowale had an online exchange with a fellow extremist where he detailed plans to murder a British soldier in December 2012.

Details of this exchange only emerged after the fatal attack against Rigby took place, but it could have been detected earlier, the report claims, if the social network had flagged it.

To pass the blame to internet companies is to use Fusilier Rigby's murder to make cheap political points.

The report claims the unnamed communications service provider automatically closed several accounts belonging to Adebowale for terrorism-related reasons without passing on details to the authorities about the nature of his discussions.

"They [the communications provider] had not been aware of the content of these accounts before as they did not routinely monitor content in this way," it was noted.

"GCHQ understands that Adebowale's accounts were disabled as a result of an automated process, where activity met the above descriptors, but that the company did not then manually review the content of these accounts, nor pass any information to the authorities," it adds.

The report goes on to claim that, had the company passed on details of Adebowale's online activities, his discussion with the extremist may have come to light sooner.

"We take the view that, when possible links to terrorism trigger accounts to be closed, the company concerned and other communications service providers should accept their responsibility to review these accounts immediately and, if such reviews provide evidence of specific intention to commit a terrorist act, they should pass this information to the appropriate authority," the report continues.

In a statement to IT Pro, a Facebook spokesperson said the company does take action to prevent terror-related content from being shared on the site.

"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 spokesperson said.

The report's conclusion has been criticised by Jim Killock, executive director of privacy organisation The Open Rights Group, who said the government is wrong to use Rigby's murder to build a case for keeping closer tabs on the online activities of UK citizens.

"To pass the blame to internet companies is to use Fusilier Rigby's murder to make cheap political points," he said.

"And it is quite extraordinary to demand that companies pro-actively monitor email content for suspicious material. Internet companies cannot and must not become an arm of the surveillance state."

He goes on to add that mass surveillance, rather than reassure citizens, actually makes them more distrustful of the authorities.

"The security services should focus their efforts on the targeted surveillance of individuals like Michael Adebolajo [Adebowale's accomplice] rather than continuing to monitor every citizen in the UK," Killock continues.

"Mass surveillance erodes the basic trust between citizen and state by treating us all as suspects. 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 Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) has also hit back at the report's suggestion that online comms providers should do more to keep tabs on users, and that the internet as a whole has become a "safe haven for terrorists."

In a statement, the ISPA said: "It is for the intelligence agencies and not service providers to identify potential subjects, and when identified by the authorities CSPs (communication service providers) can and do assist in providing communications data under a clear legal process.

"The proposal that companies should monitor all communications online runs counter to the legal framework that underpins the internet, which forbids unwarranted monitoring of customers' communications.

ISPA and its members are in active discussions around communications data capabilities, including the current Anderson Review, and the ISC's report adds to the ongoing discussions," it concluded.

This article was originally published on 25 November, before being updated with further comment from Facebook, the ISPA and others.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.