A year and a half ago few people recognized GCHQ as an abbreviation for the British secret service. But Edward Snowden's revelations changed that. Now, less than two weeks after taking over at the helm of the intelligence and security organization, Robert Hannigan is reinvigorating debate about bugging and surveillance practices.
Writing in the "Financial Times" newspaper this week, Hannigan accused US technology companies of supporting terrorists by closing their eyes to the misuse of their services. He also said Snowden's disclosures had helped terrorist groups.
"Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous, which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states, now come as standard," he wrote in the London daily. "There is no doubt that young foreign fighters have learnt and benefited from the leaks of the past two years.”
Hannigan's report appeared on the same day that the third Cyber Security Summit in Bonn was addressing the issues of security, data protection, privacy, surveillance, cyber crime and technical protection measures.
A threat to democracy
Some 180 delegates attended the summit at the futuristic conference halls of Bonn's Telekom headquarters. Among the speakers - who hailed from a variety of disciplines - were a representative of GCHQ and Ben Wizner, who works for the US Civil Liberties Union NGO, and is one of Edward Snowden's lawyers. He warned that mass-scale spying posed a long-term threat to free society and democracy.
The summit highlighted the extent to which Snowden's revelations have damaged trust in the IT sector. German managers believe a greater presence of European rather than US companies on the continent could help to restore faith in the industry. Telekom head Timotheus Höttges has promised his customers that if both transmitters and receivers were in Germany, no data would leave the country.
But as Andy Müller-Maguhn, former spokesman of the Chaos Computer Club, laid bare, that is not the only problem. Referring to network security company, RSA, which allegedly accepted 10 million dollars (7.95 million euros) to build the NSA a back door to its encoder, he called for guidelines that ensure transparency for users.
A million attacks each day
Cyber security conference attendees are familiar with threatening scenarios. Recounting a few, Timotheus Höttges said the Telekom network in Germany is attacked a million times a day, and that nine out of 10 German companies had reported being attacked during 2014.
Quoting a study from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Höttges said the worldwide annual cost of cyber crime was around 575 billion US dollars.
It's no surprise, then, that the issue of cyber security is of interest among politicians and managers alike. But just as the awareness of the risks of the digital world has grown, so too has dependence on a well-functioning and secure IT infrastructure.
It's unclear what poses the greatest risks - whether it is secret services such as the NSA, GCHQ or even the German equivalent, the BND, cyber terrorists calling for a digital jihad or highly organized and specialized criminal groups.
Some argue the real threat is consumer negligence. As Telekom manager Höttges said, "The safest lock in the world is useless if the key is under the mat.