In the wake of the shootings in Paris last week, justice ministers across the European Union have called on major Internet providers to create a system to quickly report and remove online material that “aims to incite hatred and terror.”
Such a system is “essential” to stem online terrorist propaganda, the ministers of interior and justice said in a joint statement on Sunday, responding to the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
“We are concerned at the increasingly frequent use of the Internet to fuel hatred and violence and signal our determination to ensure that the Internet is not abused to this end,” they said, adding that the Internet should remain a forum for free expression.
The ministers want to develop positive, targeted and easily accessible messages to counter the propaganda aimed at a young audience that is particularly vulnerable to indoctrination. They urged all EU countries to make maximum use of the Syria Strategic Communication Advisory Team (SSCAT) which is to be established by Belgium with EU funding and aims to combat radicalization and recruitment to terrorism.
Online extremism has been an issue for some time in the EU where officials have met with Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft representatives to discuss techniques to respond to terrorist online activities.
Pressure on the tech companies from intelligence services is also mounting. The U.K.’s signals intelligence service GCHQ for instance has called on social media companies to cooperate more with the authorities to block terrorists using their networks. The companies are “in denial” about how their technology is helping terrorists, the service claimed.
In the same statement, the ministers said they were “convinced of the crucial and urgent need” to create a framework for sharing airline passenger records for flights to, from and within the EU.
The creation of a database of such data to fight serious crime and terrorism was proposed by the European Commission in 2011. The proposal would have given law enforcers access to about 60 different data sets including travel dates, itineraries, ticket information and contact details gathered by airlines, but was shelved in 2013 when the European Parliament said it would violate fundamental rights.
Such a database could also be illegal in the light of a European Union Court of Justice (CJEU) ruling in May last year that invalidated EU laws requiring communications providers to retain metadata in much the same way as flight data would be retained because they interfered with fundamental privacy rights. What’s more, the European Parliament referred a deal to exchange passenger data with Canada to the CJEU, asking it to determine whether such a deal is in line with fundamental rights.
It now remains to be seen whether the Paris attacks will change political views in Brussels. The ministers want to move forward, adopting a “constructive approach with the European Parliament,” they said.
Intelligence services often claim that privacy laws form barriers, making it hard for them to connect databases, which in turn costs them precious time when trying to save lives—a point of view re-iterated to Dutch TV news channel RTL Nieuws by Pieter Cobelens, former director of the Dutch Defense Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) after the Paris attacks. Cobelens proposed to connect tax databases with traffic cameras and surveillance cameras.
The question remains though how effective more surveillance would have been in preventing the Paris attacks.
The two brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo killings were known to the French intelligence services, yet they weren’t stopped, said privacy advocate Paul Bernal, a lecturer in information technology, intellectual property and media law, in a post on his personal blog two days before the ministers released their statement.
Those who killed British soldier Lee Rigby in London in May 2013 were also flagged in seven different intelligence and security agency investigations. This knowledge however could not have prevented the murder a U.K. Parliament committee concluded. However, the same committee found that a tech company could have prevented it if it had monitored its platform for terrorist content.
Calls for more, and more invasive, powers of surveillance for the police and the intelligence services in the wake of a terrorist attack are predictable, but these calls are misguided at best, said Bernal. “We knew who they were. We didn’t need big-data-style mass surveillance to find them—and that’s supposed to be the point of mass surveillance, insofar as mass surveillance has a point,” he said.
“The fundamental problem is that terrorism, by its very nature, is hard to deal with. That’s something we have to face up to—and not try to look for silver bullets. No amount of technology, no level of surveillance, will solve that fundamental problem. We shouldn’t pretend that it can.”