Is Facebook To Blame For The Death Of British Soldier Lee Rigby? Depends Who You're Asking

More than a year after a British intelligence agency filed its request, Facebook has still failed to turn over key data relating to the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby, who was attacked on a London street in May 2013. One of the men responsible, Michael Adebowale, used Facebook Chat in December 2012 to connect with an al Qaeda operative based in Yemen, describing his plans to kill a British soldier in graphic detail and soliciting advice. In a report released this month, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee had harsh words for Facebook, noting that Rigby’s death might have been avoided had British intelligence services received information about the radicalized Adebowale’s Facebook activity and its links to potential terrorist activity.

Rigby’s family told The Sun that they hold the Internet giant partially responsible for his death. “Facebook have my brother's blood on their hands,” sister Sara McClure said.

Rigby’s brutal killing at the hands of Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo — which many have likened to a butchering — stunned the United Kingdom on May 22, 2013, and has opened up many serious conversations about the capacity of British intelligence agencies to monitor homegrown terrorist activity and prevent possible attacks.

Fussilier Lee Rigby was crossing the road outside of the Woolwich Barracks in London when Adebolajo, 28, and Adebowale, 22, ran him over in their car. Witnesses said the pair then climbed out of their car, armed with a cleaver and knives. Adebolajo walked over to Rigby’s unmoving body and proceeded to hack at his neck with the cleaver, nearly decapitating him, as Adebowale stabbed him repeatedly before the police apprehended them.

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Adebowale had 11 total Facebook accounts in the years prior to the attack, including five that were deactivated for terrorist activity. Facebook uses an automated monitoring system to identify and disable accounts with terrorist ties; the company has since said that an employee had never reviewed any Adebowale’s accounts for potential threats. Facebook also said that the account that Adebowale had used to discuss his desire to kill a British soldier had not been flagged.

After Rigby’s death, the British intelligence agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), asked for data related to all 11 accounts, but has so far only received selected data on three accounts directly from the company and data on another three accounts from partner intelligence agencies.

In its report, the Intelligence and Security Committee warned Prime Minister David Cameron and other government officials that British intelligence gathering was severely hindered by the recalcitrance of major Internet companies, including Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter, Microsoft, Google and Blackberry, to comply with information requests that would violate the privacy of their users.

We further note that several of the companies attributed the lack of monitoring to the need to protect their users' privacy, the ISC report concluded. However, where there is a possibility that a terrorist atrocity is being planned, that argument should not be allowed to prevail.

Cameron has previously stressed that companies have a “moral responsibility” to watch for terrorist activity among their users and to turn over any evidence of potential threats to the appropriate intelligence agencies.

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But one individual rights’ organization warned against using Rigby’s horrific death as a carte blanche justification for extending the security state even further into citizens’ private lives. As Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, put it:

The government should not use the appalling murder of Fusilier Rigby as an excuse to justify the further surveillance and monitoring of the entire UK population.

With billions of posts flooding Facebook worldwide every day, it is unclear whether or not the company could feasibly monitor and turn over the data that Cameron and the British intelligence services are demanding. While academics and advocates alike stressed the new democratic potential inherent in social media for protest against authoritarian regimes, the same slipperiness and horizontal access also empowers networks that have less savory ends. This conversation around Internet regulation, individuals’ rights to privacy and government intervention is just beginning.

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