We Ask Home Secretary Amber Rudd: 'Can You Keep Us Safe Online Without Eroding Our Privacy?'
The Debrief: The home secretary is meeting tech giants in Silicon valley to look at tackling extremism online - but what does that mean for us?
The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is currently in Silicon Valley where she is meeting with global tech giants to talk about their efforts to confront and eradicate terrorism on their platforms. She told The Debrief ‘yesterday I met with the four main companies behind this initiative – that’s Twitter, Microsoft, Google and Facebook.’
Rudd is in California to help launch the Global Internet Forum on Counter Terrorism this, she tells The Debrief, ‘is a new initiative that we’ve called for’.
Earlier this year, following three effective terror attacks on British soil, Theresa May stood on the steps of Number 10 and said that tech companies should not allow extremists ‘safe spaces’ online, adding that ‘terrorism breeds terrorism’. In her meetings, the Home Secretary tells The Debrief, she has ‘set out the case for why it’s so important to try and help us take terrorists offline and make sure they know the scale of the problem and put proper resources into ending it.’
The Prime Minister was echoing the words of Rudd who, back in March, had spoken about the importance of intelligence services being able to access encrypted messaging services after it emerged that Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker, had used Whatsapp just minutes before he carried out the atrocity.
Pressure has been mounting on tech companies to tackle online extremism for some time. Back in 2015 a Chanel 4 documentary revealed the extent to which Twitter was being used to recruit young women to join ISIS in Syria and at the end of 2016, following accusations that tech companies were ‘passing the buck’ on extremist content, Facebook, Twitter Google and Microsoft announced that they were teaming up to take action.
Rudd’s California trip is in part, she says, because this simply isn’t being done ‘fast enough’. Tech experts are sceptical about the clout carried by the British home secretary as she attempts to persuade the giants of Silicon Valley to step up to the plate and self-regulate, whilst also making the case for more government snooping. Indeed, she was widely mocked earlier this year for what appeared to be shallow knowledge of encryption and hashing when she appeared on the Andrew Marr Show.
That said, there’s no doubt that this issue is a serious one and a complex one at that, hence the need for the cooperation of tech experts. The latest Home Office research shows the scale of the online threat. They say that three-quarters of links to Daesh propaganda are shared within the first three hours of release, an hour quicker than a year ago and cite the Daesh claim that they created 11, 000 new social media accounts in May this year alone.
What does action look like though? How does Rudd propose that companies come together with governments to take terrorists offline in practice? ‘Well’ she says, ‘we must start with acknowledging that most [tech companies] already do a substantial amount…they have bespoke departments within the organisation to try and spot it and take it down but our point is that they’re not doing it fast enough.’ How does she plan to fix this? She wants to see ‘more effort, more money and more resources’ to tackle the problem. ‘Tech companies’ she says, ‘need to put real effort into stopping a terrorist from disseminating their information. So, what it looks like is information being taken down and a lot of these new accounts being taken down when they spread hate and terrorism.’
Rudd clear that, as things stand, tech companies are ‘not putting enough effort into’ this. Rudd tells The Debrief that wants to see the use and sharing of ‘machine learning’ which means that extremist material is filtered by a site before it even goes up or as soon as it is posted. ‘It shouldn’t be there’ Rudd says, ‘it’s radicalising people and it’s against their terms and conditions.’
How is the Home Secretary defining terrorist content? Are we only talking about Daesh? What about far right or white supremacist groups? ‘Absolutely yes’ she tells us, she is also talking about the far right, ‘when we talk about terrorism we do mean far right extremism which can be very violent and lead to terrorist acts as well but what we’re trying to hold these companies to account for is really to hold them to account on the terms and conditions that they’ve set out which says there should not be terrorists online.’
‘The CEOs I have met with absolutely agree’ Rudd says but what she wants to see is that the efforts terrorist are putting into communicating online are matched by the efforts to remove them.’
The forum is about larger companies supporting smaller companies ensure there is less terrorism online and sharing their learning.
On the controversial subject of end to end encryption, Rudd recently wrote in The Telegraph that ‘real people don’t need such high levels of security’. Does she still stand by that? If so, how does she reconcile the urgent need to tackle online extremism with the perseveration of our privacy? After all, Britain already has some of the most relaxed laws when it comes to how much the government can snoop on its citizens? The Investigatory Powers Act 2016, colloquially known as the Snoopers Charter, allows the security services to gather information on people, in some cases, without a warrant.
‘This is a tricky area’ she tells The Debrief, ‘I completely acknowledge that. I would start by saying that encryption provides an incredibly valuable part of everyday business for us all and we wouldn’t be able to do our banking online, our shopping online if we didn’t have really secure encryption. It’s an incredibly important part of our lives and the government wants to make sure, through effective cyber security strategy, that we protect people’s ability to do those transactions. However, when it comes to end to end encryption there is a problem and we need to talk about it. Where security services could, in the past, with a properly authorised warrant find out what people, who might be terrorists, were communicating to each other, it’s become increasingly difficult because of end to end encryption. So my point is that tech companies need to at least work with governments so that when we have targeted focus with warrants on individuals, to see what more information they can give? So that we can use that to try to intercept and keep people safe.’
What does that mean? ‘It might be targeting individuals’ she says ‘or it might be in the way of metadata so that we can get information about the person. But what we shouldn’t have is tech companies saying ‘we can’t talk to you, we’ve got end to end encryption. Because we cannot allow terrorists to flourish anywhere.’
At the start of the digital revolution, online life and real world life were very separate. These days, however, we live much of our lives and do much of our work in the digital sphere so you could reasonably argue that online life is just as real. With the encroachment of tech into every aspect of our day to day lives it follows that policing, security and legislation have been playing catch up in recent years trying to regulate the vast expanses of unregulated wild west cyberspace we now inhabit.
This has been clear when it comes to revenge porn, online harassment and has come up recently in questions of online identity, brought into sharp focus by the case of Gail Newland. One other particularly problematic and arguably potentially deadly area of online security is undeniably the dissemination, promotion and organisation of terrorism and terrorist activities on social media and via messaging apps such as Whatsapp.
This time last year there had been one terror attack on British soil since 2005, the murder of Jo Cox by far right extremist Thomas Mair. This year, in the aftermath of the attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge much attention has been, rightly, given to the role of social media in disseminating extremist content and allowing terrorists to organise in secret.
There’s no doubt that Rudd’s mission is an important one or that there is a serious need to tackle online extremism and terrorist communication channels as the role social media plays in terrorism continues to evolve. However, campaign groups like the Open Rights Group are clear that the privacy of British citizens online must also be of paramount importance and people’s right to privacy from large corporations, employers or even former partners must not be compromised along the way.
Is there a timeline on all of this? If the big tech players don’t come through what does Rudd plan to do? Will she be back in Silicon Valley? ‘You bet’ she says, ‘we will be back. But I have to say that the whole tone of these meetings has been very positive. I’m convinced we will see milestones over the next few months but we will be holding their feet to the fire.’
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