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Theresa May, Terrorism, Tech Giants & the Threat of Orwell’s 1984

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s fight to take down terror content may have far reaching implications for UK citizens.

Theresa May will today tell the United Nations general assembly that tech giants must “go further and faster” in taking down terror content on the internet.

The UK prime minister is set to throw the gauntlet down at the likes of Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter and push for the removal of extremist content within two hours.

In a move likely to win support from UK citizens in the wake of the Parsons Green bombing, London Bridge terror attack and Manchester Arena bombing, the prime minister will specifically call on technology companies to accelerate the development of AI solutions in order to automatically reduce the amount of time terror propaganda stays online.

Theresa May, Terrorism, Tech Giants & the Threat of Orwell’s 1984
PM Theresa May

As May petitions the biggest in tech to do more, ministers have also called for end-to-end encryption to be limited, again igniting the debate around the privacy of citizens and the seeming descent towards Orwell’s 1984.

Although conjuring up images of the 1984 dystopian future may be dramatic, with a large majority of the population welcoming renewed pressures on tech giants to do more when it comes to terror content, many experts have critisied May’s address to the United Nations – Bill Evans from One Identity even goes as far as saying it ‘boggles the mind’.

“Prime Minister Theresa May’s continued call for the private sector of high tech to voluntarily support government’s desire to fight terrorist using the internet is a great idea…until you actually think about it.  It so fraught with peril that it boggles the mind,” said Evans.

“Let’s say the internet giants like WhatsApp, Google and Apple concede and decide to offer what is, in essence, a back door for government to review encrypted communications.  And then that capability leaks. How long before the tax bureau starts using it to detect how I spend my money?  Or it falls into the hands of hackers who are now hacking my communications?”

The debate around backdoors is not a new one, with nearly all those in the security industry asserting that a backdoor – even one supposedly only for government use – will act like a front door for whoever has the motivation, means and skill to do so.

“While there are a minority of cases in which the security services may have a legitimate need to break or circumvent encryption – in order to aid the detection and prosecution of terrorism – removing the ability to use it effectively will irrevocably hurt everyone,” said security researcher Lee Munson.

“In a Western democracy, individual citizens have the right to a private life and being able to communicate securely through WhatsApp and other services is part and parcel of that.

“Should the UK government ever succeed in banning or weakening encryption it will cause the majority of its citizens to give up all of their privacy in return for a minimal amount of extra security, especially given the fact that the security services are not sufficiently staffed to monitor every domestic communication anyway.”

The monitoring of domestic communication also gives rise to another serious concern – false positives.

These internet companies will undoubtedly use some form of AI to track what is terrorist communications and what is not.  And the next thing I know, the armed forces are breaking down my front door in a case of mistaken communications.  Is it the internet companies’ fault?  They were voluntarily helping the government.  Is it the government’s fault?  They were relying on the intel from a third party that is NOT the government.  Meanwhile, I have no front door and the specter of suspicion following me the rest of my days,” said Mr Evans.

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When looking at the implications of limiting encryption and the government’s stance on fighting terror content it is easy to be so critical – backdoors will weaken, not strengthen the security of citizens and ultimately lead to the surrendering of the fundamental right to privacy. However, the fight against terrorism and terrorist propaganda must continue,with May right to highlight the dark side of the internet.

“Terrorism is, by definition, a terrible thing and must be tackled wherever and whenever possible, including online,” said Mr Munson.

“That the UK government is thrusting itself to the fore in the debate on how the internet should be ‘policed’ in this respect is admirable and it’s good to see that many tech companies are reacting quickly to extremist and inflammatory content posted through their services.”

However, although ‘admirable’, the strategy in how to deal with terror content and the spread of terrorist propaganda needs to be reviewed. It is not enough for May to just order tech giant to do more. Indeed, Kent Walker, general counsel for Google, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that tech giants would not be able to “do it alone”. Kent,  who is representing tech firms at Mrs May’s meeting, said:

“Machine-learning has improved but we are not all the way there yet.”

“We need people and we need feedback from trusted government sources and from our users to identify and remove some of the most problematic content out there.”

This fight needs an army of allies, spanning across public and private sector, because if not, well…..we will soon be living Orwell’s 1984.

“Government alone cannot simply ask the private sector to solve this problem.  There needs to be a combination of government mandate and investment, private business cooperation, and protection for innocent citizens who might otherwise be caught in the crosshairs,” said Mr Evans.

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