The power of persuasion is sometimes a terrifying attribute facing governments all over the world. The internet, with its freedom of global information, is making it easier to do so. Increasingly, studies have been taking place monitoring the caliber of Facebook, Twitter and other web pages springing up with terrorist content during our technological revolution. This varies in degree from nationalist pages with racist content such as the English Defence League (EDL) to hardcore al-Qaeda recruitment and training. Is this, however, a necessary basis for governments to advocate internet surveillance that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has recently been called out upon? Is it that common or lethal a threat to justify such actions when there are serious legal and human rights implications?
“The internet is a prime example of how terrorists can behave in a truly transnational way; in response, states need to think and function in an equally transnational manner.”
Ban Ki-Moon has highlighted the fundamental rhetoric coming from the UN about the use of the internet for terrorist purposes. This reflects the 2012 document produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The major worry about this issue is that groups can more easily communicate across all global boarders. The Executive Director of the UNODC has advised a ‘proactive and coordinated response’ to this ‘rapidly growing phenomenon’. The document advocates a strategy of global intelligence gathering to firstly collect as much evidence as possible for the prosecution of acts, disrupt the process of radicalisation and to build a broader understanding of aspects that underpin radicalisation in the hope of tackling those issues. This will all be pursued following the rule of law and with respect to human rights.
However, the 2012 document is generally seen as a suggestion booklet due to its failure to promote a clear international strategy. The suggestions made are more suited to domestic strategy such as encouraging internet cafes, internet service providers and places with wifi hotspots to register their users. This is a minor impact that cannot be put to use transnationally. Purely the sharing of information can achieve this and states are in charge of the information they share. They may be apprehensive to share under the pretense of other states misusing their information.
Speaking of misuse of information, domestically, the police and public prosecutors are finding the internet a very effective insight into criminal activity. Although effective, this use of surveillance is often irrelevant and inappropriate. As with all internet monitoring it lacks concern about public privacy and free speech.
So can we justify these clear breaches of human rights in the name of national security?
The United Kingdom is one of the leaders in pioneering legislation and research into criminal cyber activity; it has recognized the core methods of using the web for terrorist purposes.
Firstly for propaganda: content that implicates recruitment, radicalization and incitement to terrorism are the most common forms found on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Any pages or streams relative to these characteristics are increasingly being reviewed, suspended or removed by companies. It is speculated that the US is putting pressure on social media sites to act responsibly and efficiently to such content.
Unfortunately, there are many more sinister uses of the web. Websites can aid the training of new recruits in ideology and action. It is easier to plan and execute isolated and simultaneous events. Germany’s anti-terror official Hans-Georg Maassen has stipulated that terrorism now goes beyond social media and may have embarked upon programming online calls against infrastructure via its control systems. This has terrifying implications to public safety and disruption.
It is clear that the threat of the use of the internet for terrorist purposes is a valid one. Although the internet is a fantastic tool in modern society for education and culture, it can be abused not only by its users but also in its monitoring. It is very difficult to create a legal strategy on this issue but it will continually be developed and hopefully used responsibly to prevent future acts of terrorism.
The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, 2012.