COMMENT | Technology and Terror

By Steve Hersee (@stevehersee)

In the wake of the terrorist attack on Westminster bridge on 22 March 2017, the Daily Mail produced a front-page headline stating that Google was the ‘friend of terrorists’. The article described how it had taken the Mail just 2 minutes on Google to find a terror manual on how to use a car to commit mass murder. They also accused the company of ‘raking in money’ from adverts placed next to YouTube videos, which claimed that the attacks were a hoax. In a separate article the Mail revealed that the perpetrator, Khalid Masood, had been active on the Facebook owned messaging service WhatsApp just 2 minutes before the attack. Whilst the nature of this activity is not publicly known the paper speculated that he could have been communicating with a network of collaborators.

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The Mail also mocked up an image purportedly showing a screenshot of Masood’s WhatsApp application, which included an explanation of the encryption used to secure messages. Whilst the Mail did not directly address the issue of encryption, the image does invoke previous claims that encryption was hampering the ability of law enforcement to investigate terrorism. It may also pre-empt a further issue if the security services cannot access the contents of Masood’s phone, which they may now have recovered. When this happened in the US the FBI took Apple to court to force them to create a software update to allow the FBI access to the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorist, Syed Rizwan. Apple resisted the FBI’s demands and they eventually gained access to the phone by other means.

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Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also linked the attacks to technology companies. Whilst speaking at a conference in the US a day after the Westminster attack, he warned that polluting messages were circulating across the internet and asserting that companies had to be far quicker in taking them down.

“They need to do more to take that stuff off their media, the incitements, the information about how to become a terrorist, the radicalising sermons and messages. That needs to come down”

Many have been critical of the Mail’s headline, mainly arguing that if Google can be viewed as a terrorist’s friend for telling people how to use cars as weapons, then information provided about kitchen knives or car rentals should be viewed in a similar light.

But these claims against technology companies are not new and the debate over the role of technology companies in the facilitation of terrorism has been ongoing for several years. In 2014, the head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, claimed that social networks were the command and control centres of terrorism and after the terrorist murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby the Intelligence and Security Committee accused technology companies of not doing enough to combat terrorism. In more recent times Google and Facebook have both been accused of not doing enough to remove both extremist and abusive imagery from their platforms and from profiting from the proliferation of such material. Just this month there have been several significant incidents related to the role of technology companies in the spread of extremist material and ideology online:

  • During March, several British institutions including the Guardian, BBC, BT, Cancer Research, Waitrose, Co-Op and British government began to withdraw their adverts from (Google owned) YouTube after expressing concerns that their adverts were being placed alongside extremist material. The boycott has since spread to the US, with AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Coca Cola, Verizon and Enterprise all halting adverts on the site. More than 250 companies are now taking part.
  • On 7 March the BBC published details of their investigation into sexualised images of children on Facebook during which they identified and reported dozens of explicit images of children to the social network. Facebook failed to remove more than 80% of the images and when the BBC contacted Facebook for an interview Facebook asked the BBC to provide evidence of the images. When the BBC adhered to this request Facebook cancelled the interview and reported the BBC to the police for distributing abusive images. They received substantial criticism for both their inaction in taking the images offline and for their hostile reaction to the BBC’s investigation[9].
  • On 14 March the Home Affairs Committee questioned representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter on their response to online abuse and hate crimes. Committee Chair and Labour MP, Yvette Cooper told them that the companies had a “a terrible reputation among users for dealing swiftly with content even against your own community standards.” Robert Buckland, the Solicitor General also criticised Google and indicated that they might be breaking the law by allowing extremist material to remain online.
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Home Affairs Committee questions tech companies (www.parliament.co.uk)

I think the law is there, it’s a clear boundary and, frankly, if this behaviour meets the criteria for recklessness, then it potentially could lead to an investigation.

  • On 19 March, Google’s head of Europe, Matt Brittin, publicly apologised after adverts for major brands appeared next to extremist material, although he did not say if Google planned to do anything about it.

The issue of the use of modern technology by extremists and criminals is real, but is also extremely sensitive and entangled with matters of privacy and freedom of speech. Sensationalist headlines, such as the Daily Mail’s, add additional heat to an already delicate issue, particularly when published in the immediate aftermath of atrocities such as that which occurred on Wednesday. These headlines damage the cause of those who believe that technology companies are not doing enough to police the content of their networks because these fears can now be dismissed as scare mongering extremism by the Daily Mail. The extreme rhetoric of the Daily Mail undermines efforts to hold technology companies to account and makes it more difficult to address the real issues.

Some will take the headlines at face value and believe that technology companies do indeed assist terrorists. They will call for the government to be handed extreme powers to control and monitor these companies. Others, appalled by the headlines, will defend these companies and deny that there is any issue with the use of modern technology to facilitate terrorism. The result will be division and a debate focussed on the distracting question of whether Google is a friend of terrorists. This obscures the real issues at hand.

Modern technology is indeed used by terrorists to radicalise, communicate, plan and facilitate terrorist attacks but so is historic technology such as cars, phones and knives. We should neither exaggerate the significance of modern technology nor deny its impact. The debate needs to focus on what reasonable steps technology companies can take to reduce the nefarious use of their networks, whilst simultaneously protecting privacy and freedom of speech, and importantly not damaging their reputations or profits. But this can only be achieved in the cold light of day; not in the wake of a terror attack.

Steve Hersee is a Cyber Security Researcher jointly supervised by the Information Security Group and Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is studying threat construction in cyberspace, focussing on the roles of the state and the digital rights movement. He can be #hunted down on Twitter @stevehersee

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