New powers to control ‘the fifth domain’ – the internet – and its associated online communities, are being proposed in the UK. The other core domains – air, sea, land and space – are all closely regulated because of the impact they have on our lives. The internet has no such controls and has become a hunting ground for extremists as they seek to exploit the vulnerable and entice them to train in terrorist activities.
Now, the government is exercising its newly elected unilateral power and pushing ahead with the Extremism Bill, which would give heightened strength to the police in criminal investigations and oblige social networks to supply detailed, traceable activity logs for anyone suspected of acting outside the law.
Tackling radicalisation The Bill was outlined in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament on 27 May and reintroduced plans to tackle radicalisation and the rapid spread of terrorist recruitment. The purpose, the government says, is to “unite our country and keep you and your family safe by tackling all forms of extremism and to combat groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate.”
If the proposals become law, the police will be able to obtain court orders for public telecommunications providers to release internet search records and other communications data on demand. These powers would allow the police to examine the online conversations of suspected extremists on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Reaching out The government has been rightly concerned about the increasing radicalisation of young people and the ease and speed at which terrorists are infiltrating ordinary communities to exploit vulnerable people. Alarmingly, those choosing to become foreign fighters are not part of organised criminal gangs; thanks to social media, terrorist groups now reach ordinary individuals everywhere.
Social networks have created a multibillion-dollar industry and allowed us to share experiences much more widely than previous generations. But they can have a dark side. The platforms have long been misused by bullies and child abusers but they are also now being employed very successfully by media savvy extremists. Potential recruits are aggressively targeted, particularly people with “violent backgrounds, the very young and those with mental health issues,” the Metropolitan Police Service has said. Jihadis are thought to be sending up to 100,000 Twitter messages a day to plot terrorism. With no single controlling authority and no rule book, social media is the new Wild West.
The reach and radicalisation by ISIS is growing not just in the UK but across the globe – in fact, the total number of foreign fighters inside Syria and Iraq has now exceeded 20,000. The Islamic States is employing expert use of social media to recruit and radicalise youth from around the world creating a new generation of digital native extremists.
A change in mindset Modern, cyber warfare requires a change in mindset and legal toolkit as we see a swing from traditional, ground-based crime to the online environment. It’s been a rapid shift and needs an equally rapid reaction from governments. Fortunately, an increasing number are starting to recognise that the internet has become that ‘fifth domain’ and that, while clearly doing much good, it needs boundaries.
The Extremism Bill offers a controlled approach and not a universal “right to know” for the police, which should provide some reassurance of its limitations in terms of surveillance while allowing police greater access to the data that will illuminate genuinely at-risk areas.
The Law Law enforcement agencies need to be able to access online communications to prevent those exploiting social media to recruit and radicalise youth. Monitoring suspicious behaviour does of course itself need to be done with clear guidance and strict legal oversight but it does still need to be possible.
The new law would require internet service providers to keep a detailed, traceable log of individual activity in case it is requested in an investigation. However, without the resources to analyse such vast amounts of data, investigators could struggle to see a change.
The volume and variety of data long ago reached such complexity and scale that only technology can truly handle it and maximise its value. In fact, law enforcement and intelligence operations are, increasingly, a data analytics challenge. There is so much data from so many sources that it takes some seriously clever algorithms to spot the links between seemingly unconnected pieces of data or detect anomalous relationships.
New advances in crime analytics can connect different data types and uncover people, entities, patterns, locations and relationships of interest. In addition, it can scrutinise unstructured data like text documents and social media posts, recognising words and phrases as ‘entities’ that can be analysed and linked automatically.
Crime Analytics The latest crime analytics techniques such as link analysis, social network analysis and anomaly detection can help focus investigators’ attention on the right persons early on. This is critical in identifying at-risk young people before they leave home to train to fight.
Analytics software helps law enforcement agents disrupt recruitment networks that target the vulnerable but moreover, assists in discounting individuals who are not persons of interest. Working from known extremists out to a wider network, agencies can ensure they do not breach the privacy or civil liberties of citizens who are connected but not a threat or at risk.
Extremist groups use increasingly sophisticated technology means to support their activities. Governments and law enforcement agencies must constantly upgrade their own technical capability to meet this challenge.
With the right technological support, the new legislation will enable law enforcement agencies to access the right information at the right time with reliable results. Information that could protect a child, save lives or defend a border.
Paul Stokes is COO of Wynyard Group, a market leader in serious crime fighting software used globally by intelligence, investigations and information security operations in justice and law enforcement, national security, financial services and critical national infrastructure.