The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has urged tech companies to take a more active role in protecting people against terrorism and other forms of online harm.
Delivering the keynote speech to the International Institute of Counter Terrorism’s World Summit on September 13, Cressida Dick told an audience of international CT experts that should tech companies ‘ignore their responsibility for public protection’, governments around the world must be prepared to enact new rules and regulations designed to strengthen their ability to protect their citizens from harm.
Remembering 9/11, the Commissioner said that whilst ideologies and drivers have diversified and tactics changed, what constitutes terrorism and the devastating impact it has on so many lives remains the same as it did back in September 2001.
“Conflict remains the primary driver of terrorism globally, the UN says that 99 per cent of terrorist-related deaths take place where there is an active conflict or high levels of political terror. In countries with greater political stability and economic development, what causes terrorism remains a complex mix of social alienation, lack of opportunity and dissent with political policy at home and abroad.
“The desire to inspire rather than direct – as well as an increase in our powers of disruption – has also driven changes in terrorist methodology, with lower sophistication attacks using knives and vehicles as weapons becoming much more prevalent. Of course, we have also seen even here in the U.K. the devastating consequences in Manchester and elsewhere around the world even more so, the threats from explosives, marauding firearms attacks and other complex plots still loom large.
“These low sophistication attacks inspired by the proliferation of online extremist material can reduce the process of radicalization and attack planning from years to weeks, dramatically narrowing the window we in law enforcement have to identify and neutralize a threat.
“I would suggest that the most significant change in the context we face has, perhaps,not been brought about by terrorist groups or actors, or even by international conflicts or traditional drivers that I’ve talked about before – but by technology.
“The internet has eroded the physical barriers that would once have restricted terrorists – international borders, the need for clandestine meetings and face-to-face communication. Online, the threat picture is infinitely more complex, with the fragmentation of the threat away from well-resourced and large-scale organizations towards smaller, closed groups with differing ideologies and no clear physical base or leadership structure.
“The extreme right-wing threat in the U.K. is one such example. In 2016, our government proscribed, banned, a group called National Action and we have seen since then splinter groups crystallise and break apart almost as quickly as police and the Security Services can identify and target them.
“More broadly, the internet has globalized extremism, proliferated the spread of poisonous ideologies internationally and made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to reach into the lives of people halfway round the world.
“And in an information age with around the clock news and social media, there is a level of scepticism and misinformation which collides with individuals who are vulnerable and isolated to create a perfect storm that can put people on a path towards hateful ideology.
“In short, an attack may be less sophisticated, but the socio-political ‘reasoning’ driving those with hostile intentions and how they develop such views has never been more complex.”
During the first lockdown, the U.K. saw referrals to its terrorism prevention program ‘Prevent’ fall by about 50%. But the Commissioner said they have now surged back to higher than usual levels.
“How this widespread impact on the nation’s mental wellbeing will affect the threat as we emerge from the pandemic is, as yet, unknown. What we do know is that we have already seen an uptick in demand and in operational tempo and a record level of casework.
“The internet may be creating new problems for us to try and solve, and Covid has added unforeseen complexity, but of course, as so many speakers, I know, have talked about, recent global events remind us that the old threats remain poised to cause us all security issues.
“I won’t dwell on that any longer, except to say all of us who saw the horrific attacks in Kabul, which claimed the lives of so many Afghan civilians, American soldiers and U.K. citizens, shows us that organizations like Daesh and AQ intend to make their presence felt both locally and internationally, and we must be ready.
“Where once we relied on an international alliance, we now need an even more powerful societal alliance to take on a globalized threat, facilitated by the growth, reach and influence of online actors who are increasingly adept at preying on the young and the most vulnerable in society.
“Our strongest weapons are still, of course, greater teamwork and information-sharing crossing international borders, learning from the experiences of others; responding collectively to a threat that can manifest itself anywhere, and anytime.
“Our coalition needs to include families and communities, teachers and clinicians, business leaders and particularly, and this is my main concluding point, the corporations who control the online platforms which we all rely on to communicate and connect with each other.
“The tech companies and social media platforms have become much better at working alongside law enforcement and governments to help protect people against a huge range of online threats and I pay tribute to them for that. But there is still more they can and must do. They have the power and the resources to make a real difference. But they are not doing enough to help protect people against the harm that takes place on their platforms.
“Police colleagues here in the U.K. have spoken at length about the issue of end-to-end encryption becoming ubiquitous across the world’s most popular social media platforms. But this is just one example of how this wonderful capability that we all have to communicate in different ways is also, not only damaging to society, but preventing law enforcement agencies the world over from protecting their citizens. How are we supposed to protect children from online sexual exploitation, or defend ourselves against the next terrorist threat if we don’t even have the power to obtain evidence held on servers outside our jurisdiction?
“If the tech industry ignores its responsibility for public protection then governments must come together to do something about it. How we react to challenges posed by supranational organisations will be pivotal to tackling the terrorist threat, and whether that means new regulations and regulatory bodies, or greater collaboration from those who have the power to change things, we cannot allow the status quo to continue.
“The U.K. is trying to grapple with how we can make the internet and our use of technology safer for everyone, through our Online Harms Bill. But like everything else we do, we are much stronger together. If you take nothing else away from this speech, I want you to think about how we can work more closely together to engage tech companies as a collective, and how we can build an international framework which gives our law enforcement agencies the powers we need to protect our people.
“Twenty years ago we collectively rose to the challenges posed by a new CT threat. Today that threat is even greater. It is more complex and evolving more rapidly than ever before. It preys on our most vulnerable and it is expedited by the flow of extremist content on the internet. We need an expanded and global societal coalition to face that challenge – built upon the strong foundation we have laid over the last 20 years.”