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British lord blames rise of ISIS on Snapchat and WhatsApp

ISIS, snapping.
ISIS, snapping.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

During a Monday debate, a British member of Parliament said that ISIS's rise was "entirely" a result of the group's use of vanishing photo app Snapchat and messaging service WhatsApp. Lord King of Bridgwater, also known as Thomas King, is a Conservative member of the House of Lords and served as UK Defence Minister from 1989 to 1992.

King made the comment while speaking on the House floor in defense of a bill commonly called the Snooper's Charter, which would make it much easier for UK security services to get electronic information without warrants. That's when he proposed his curious theory about ISIS, Snapchat, and WhatsApp:

I'm not a tweeter. But we've got Facebook, we've got Twitter. The other day, somebody tried to explain to me what WhatsApp is. Somebody tried to explain to me about Snapchat. But, my Lords, I don't know about them. What is absolutely clear is that the terrorists and jihadists do.

And the understanding is actually that [ISIS], and part of their amazing advance across Syria and Iraq, is that their communication was so good. And the way they kept together was entirely due to one or other of the last two systems that I mentioned.

Here's video (via Ishmael Daro):

While the Snapchat reference is simply baffling, the WhatsApp reference makes a little more sense. Robert Hannigan, the head of the UK's equivalent of the NSA (the GCHQ), wrote an op-ed in November labeling social networks and online communication apps "the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists." He mentioned WhatsApp, along with Facebook and Twitter, as an app ISIS uses to "promote itself, intimidate people, and radicalise new recruits" among the younger set.

That said, there is no evidence that, as Lord King said, ISIS needed WhatsApp, let alone Snapchat, to conduct its broadly conventional offensives in Iraq and Syria.

Lord King's comments aren't just goofy. The Snooper's Charter, which King was proposing as an amendment to a separate counter-terrorism bill, is about warrantless online surveillance. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it would "require [internet service providers] to harvest and store data taken from their subscribers' online traffic, and hand this over to the government without a warrant." That's troubling in its own right, and doubly so given the justification one of its key proponents has offered.

King ended up withdrawing the amendment, but both the Guardian and EFF believe he and his allies will try to reintroduce it.

This episode speaks to a larger problem: people in positions of power who may not understand the internet are nonetheless seeking to regulate it. Though Lord King admits he has no idea what Snapchat or WhatsApp are, he's in a position to make the rules that govern their use. That problem is hardly unique to King or the UK.

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