Police are losing track of terror plots against the UK because “irresponsible” social media companies are refusing to cooperate over suspects, the country’s most senior counter-terrorism officer has warned.
Metropolitan assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said some Internet firms were deliberately “undermining” counter-terrorism investigations by refusing to hand over potential evidence or threatening to tip off suspects.
Mr Rowley said the problem was a “growing Achilles' heel” for his officers and warned they would not be able to fully protect the public if it is not addressed.
Many were making vast profits while effectively creating “safe havens” for terrorists and criminals, meaning the number of online “blind spots” for police and intelligence agencies has increased.
It came as figures showed up to 60 people a month are being radicalised in the UK, predominantly linked to Islamist extremism, and that more than 750 Britons are now feared to have travelled to Syria, mainly to join Isil.
It emerged earlier this year that Twitter and other social media companies had policies that they would inform users about requests from the police or spy agencies for data on them.
Facebook was criticised after it failed to spot alarming material on its site from one of Lee Rigby’s murderers five months before the attack.
Internet companies have also been accused of allowing terrorists a safe haven through the increasing sophistication of encryption services they provide for their customers.
Mr Rowley said: “We have terrorist cases in the past year where surveillance gaps have meant that where the plot has developed we have been unsighted on the exact details of what they are planning.
“There have been operations in the last year where we have made arrests with a worrying degree of uncertainty as to the exact timing and nature of the plot.”
Mr Rowley described the social media industry as “immature” and compared it to the banking sector where many firms regard it as their responsibility to flag up potential criminal behaviour that many run across their systems.
He said some companies start up and make vast amounts of profits very quickly but intelligence online is now more “patchy” than it has ever been.
In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), he said: “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.
“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.”
“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.
He said “up-to-date legislation” was now needed to enable his officers to “operate in the modern digital age”, improved cooperation internationally across different jurisdictions and the “constructive, practical help” of social media companies.
He said many of the problems were a fall out from the Edward Snowden affair, the former CIA contractor who leaked the surveillance tactics of the US National Security Agency and GCHQ.
Mr Rowley revealed that there are now 60 referrals a month to the Government’s counter-radicalisation Prevent programme of which ten per cent turn out to be of concern and require further action.
That includes stopping people travelling to Syria or mixing with known fanatics.
Police are also running some 600 counter-terrorism investigations a year.
It came as Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who leaked the surveillance tactics of the US National Security Agency and GCHQ, appeared to side with the internet companies in their refusal to cooperate.
In an interview with BBC Panorama, Mr Snowden said: “”It’s really a question of free enterprise.
“Who do companies work for? Do they work for their customers or do they work for governments?”