Privacy vs. terrorism: Is social media clampdown even possible?
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Privacy vs. terrorism: Is social media clampdown even possible?

In July, Dark Web intelligence company, Flashpoint, released a new report which looked at the jihadists’ digital toolkit [PDF]. This highlighted the technology critical for jihadists to thrive and stressed that “social media is integral to this robust online presence”.

“It has truly transformed the global jihadist movement,” said the report. “Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook inflate jihadist notoriety, driving unlimited traffic, new recruits, and a global audience.”

Yet beyond the really popular social sites the report revealed that a jihadists’ arsenal critically includes secure browsers, VPNs, protected email services, mobile security applications, encrypted messengers and mobile propaganda applications. So, with such as wealth of different platforms and apps – along with all the new ones springing up all the time – is it really possible to clamp down on this activity?

Well, the main sites are certainly having a go and in August, Twitter – which has been criticised a lot in the past – announced that it had suspended 235,000 new accounts. This represents a true clamp down, sees the total number of suspended accounts reach 360,000 since mid-2015 and means the total number of suspensions per day has risen by 80% from last year.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg and takes us into all kinds of grey areas over privacy. Claire Stead, Online Safety Ambassador at web security company, Smoothwall, tells IDG Connect: “Social media sites should take more responsibility for monitoring extremist behaviour, however their platforms are not built in a way to facilitate this.”

This means they need to collaborate with partners that have the filtering and monitoring capabilities to identify extremist behaviour and take comments and accounts down that look suspicious.

However as Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange, points out: “It's important to remember that privacy protections don't exist to shield the machinations of terrorists from our security agencies. Privacy rights protect the entire population from undue surveillance, data breaches and, in fact, terrorism.”

In its report Flashpoint highlighted Telegram as the most popular encrypted messaging site. This made the news ahead of the Olympics this summer when it was used by a Brazilian extremist group to pledge allegiance to ISIS ahead of the games. While by the end of August France and Germany had announced their plan to force these sites to unlock encrypted messages.

It won’t be long before the Apple phone unlocking case emerges again in brand a new guise. And this is precisely the problem because how can you really identify extremism and draw a line?

As Stead at Smoothwall says: “When discussing 'violent extremism' it is important to remember that freedom of speech still comes into play. People have the right to share what some may consider extremist views. However, as soon as we start considering law breaking – that is when there should be the justification for censorship and intervention.” 

Laguna of Open-Xchange is pretty categorical on the subject. “Allowing law enforcement and intelligence agencies access into an encrypted service undermines that service’s ability to protect its users’ information from any cyber threat,” he says. “And if the government begins monitoring messaging apps, criminals and terrorists will simply turn to other methods of communication that cannot be intercepted.”  

Laguna believes “the core argument that privacy rights are at odds with security concerns is a fallacy. When governments limit free speech and privacy rights online, they harm the general public, not criminals.”  

So, as Stead concludes: “There is a fine line between freedom of speech and potentially harmful behaviour, and this needs to be assessed carefully. Extremist views are only thought to be so because they are not considered the general view of the mass public, however there is still enough people who believe the same things and who is to say what is right or wrong?

“If censorship on mainstream social sites emerges it is highly likely that extremists will move to different platforms or the dark web. I doubt it will ever be eradicated completely, but platforms that facilitate this behaviour should be doing more to discourage it.”

 

Also read:

Insight: The ‘jihobbiests’ that run ISIS’s social accounts

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Kathryn Cave

Editor at IDG Connect

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