Are tech firms doing enough on terror?

Tom Cheshire, Technology Correspondent

Who is worse: terrorists or technology companies? This should be a dumb question, but if you read the papers, it can be hard to tell.

The botched Parsons Green attack was a case in point. The morning after the attack, which injured 29, and while the attackers were still on the run from police, the Daily Mail was clear who was to blame: ‘Web Giants with blood on their hands’, the front page said.

Specifically, Google, because you could search for instructions on how to make a fairy light bomb. I suspect many people hadn’t known you could make a bomb from fairy lights before they read that front page. Something for them to Google later, perhaps.

Then Amazon’s algorithms got in trouble for grouping bomb-making ingredients in its ‘Frequently Bought Together’ section. One can only wonder how many teenagers are radicalised into murderous terrorism while clicking the ‘Proceed to Checkout’ button.

The same thing happened with the Westminster attack: then, the Daily Mail (again) called Google “the terrorist’s friend”. It reported that people could use Google to find out that it’s possible to drive a car into people to kill them.

Newspapers have their own (understandable) antipathy against the tech giants because of what they’re doing to journalism’s business model. But politicians are egging them on too. After the Westminster attack, Theresa May’s very first speech mentioned the technology giants. The Home Secretary told us that the “necessary hashtags” would help us defeat terror.

And again, today. The Prime Minister is meeting other leaders in New York, at the United Nations General Assembly, to discuss going ”further and faster”. And apparently we do want more done: a report from Policy Exchange says that three out of four of us want tech companies to do more remove terrorist content.

Tech companies could come up with the means of letting the UK government in, even if it would be a huge amount of work to re-engineer their services.

Tom Cheshire

“More must be done” is the mantra. It always is. Who’s going to say less must be done to fight terrorism?

But it’s not a very helpful one. It leads to unrealistic expectations on both sides.

First, technology companies deserve more credit. Long before you get to the fairy bomb making guide on Google, you’ll come across a site called Open Your Eyes. This is a “movement dedicated to exposing ISIS”, planted in results searches for things like bombs and car attacks as counter narrative to IS propaganda.

Twitter says it is removing hundreds of thousands of terrorist accounts every year. Even Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, has got a lot quicker taking down Islamic State channels. It’s still perfectly possible for the dedicated to keep up, but the casual user is less likely to stumble upon them. They are less good at removing Al Qaeda content, just as security experts say Al Qaeda is coming back.

And when you speak to law enforcement and counter terror sources, they’re grateful for the speedy access to metadata that WhatsApp gives them in emergency situations.

Giving praise where it’s due matters because the next bit is very tricky: encryption remains a battle, as I exclusively reported yesterday. The UK government asked WhatsApp for access to encrypted messages. WhatsApp refused.

The temptation – for both Government and tech companies – is to separate the two issues. Removing extremist content is something everyone agrees on and it’s an easy win; a back door for encryption is not and it will be a battle for years to come.

But the two are linked. Technology companies must acknowledge that encrypted apps offer a powerful new way of communicating. Jihadists can pump out propaganda to hook curious minds abroad. That might inspire attacks – or they can go further and groom, recruit and direct terror, all within the app.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, calls this “shrinking the space of radicalisation”. Extremist content is combined with encrypted messaging to present a new type of threat.

You can argue that Government never previously had the ability to listen to private conversations in a pub – unless a suspect was already under surveillance – and nor should they have access to private chats online.

But in a similar way, recruiters have never had quicker, easier access to impressionable minds. They couldn’t take their hate to the pub; they can take it to people’s mobiles.

So why not offer access to security services with a warrant?

Encrypted apps like Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal say they can’t offer access because they themselves don’t collect the data.

This is often presented as a technical argument, but should be emphasised as a political one.

Mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State
Jihadists can use encrypted apps to pump out propaganda to hook curious minds abroad

All of these companies could come up with the means of letting the UK Government in, even if it would be a huge amount of work to re-engineer their services.

They don’t do this because they believe that only end-to-end encryption can keep their users safe. That’s a political argument. They’re right – and they should reiterate that stance as often as possible. By rejecting the UK Government’s demands, WhatsApp has made that point vividly. It was the correct course.

If the tech companies are clear, that would force the UK Government to be just as clear. If access to content of encrypted messages is never going to happen because Silicon Valley simply refuses, the UK Government will have to abandon its lingering, vague aspiration to get that content.

At that point, the Government could try the courts. Under the Investigatory Powers Bill – sometimes better known as the Snoopers’ Charter – the Government has the legal right to ask service providers for unencrypted messages, so long as it’s “reasonably practicable”. A court would probably end up deciding what that meant. It might not go the Government’s way.

Or the Government could stop its pursuit of encrypted messages and work on getting more – and speedier – metadata, alongside other legally permitted surveillance techniques, like hacking.

Either way, it would put a long argument to bed.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Katie Stallard – Disunited they stand on North Korea

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