#Guest Contribution: Terror In Your Network

Should Ireland be a tax haven for IT corporations? Is Brexit threatening the digital economy? Can social media companies help in fighting terrorism? This series, presented in cooperation with our media partner, euro | topics, takes a closer look at the debate on digital economy and society taking place in Ireland and all over Europe. Until #rpDUB arrives, we are regularly featuring euro | topics guest articles on current topics here on the re:publica website.

These companies are sitting on primary sources and information that police and secret services all over the world would like to get their hands on: social networks, which of course, are also used by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State militia for their communications. Terrorists use social networks to disseminate propaganda, recruit new fighters, or pass on instructions for terror attacks in Europe. So to which extent are social media companies already cooperating with security agencies?

So far, not as extensively as the latter might hope. A report that the Internal Committee of the British Parliament published in August this year accuses social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of consciously failing in the fight against terrorism, according to the Financial Times. The use of the Internet by terrorists was one of the greatest threats to the United Kingdom, the report said. Not least because the number of specialists involved in monitoring social media was generally far too small. The US government, in January and February this year, also invited social media companies to the White House to discuss ways of developing deeper forms of cooperation, but with little success so far.

Of course, social media companies are not putting up with these accusations. They occasionally counter them by displaying the number of messages and user profiles that have already been deleted. But by the look of it, terrorists do not feel particularly threatened on social networks, because they continue to use them gladly. A number of terrorist financiers blacklisted by the US government just opened up new accounts after their old ones were deleted, and continued to use them for fund-raising purposes, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That being said, deleting contents and user profiles may not necessarily be the most effective approach in terms of monitoring terrorist groups or even preventing attacks – especially since a lot of propaganda messages are sent out by bots, not by humans. The flood of messages is hardly manageable. Addressing individuals that show radicalization tendencies in social networks directly could be a far more effective strategy, at least if it is applied on a large enough scale.

Science magazine discussed another kind of approach in June. Researchers have found that data from social networks could give some indication of imminent terrorist attacks. Their hope is that social networks could become a kind of early-warning system for terrorist attacks.

Of course, the monitoring of contents from social networks and messenger services as it is done by security services, and the collaboration of service providers with these agencies, raises a number of concerns about data protection and privacy. Of course, it's not just terrorists, but basically everyone who uses the Internet to communicate. But in terms of security, roughly one third of Internet users from the US, the UK and from Germany have shown support for the fact that government agencies are increasingly permitted to siphon off data from social networks, as the last “Consumer Openness Index” has reveled.

Image credit: Surian Soosay (CC BY 2.0)