Conscripting Private Online Enterprise in the Battle against Terrorism

by Matt Klassen on December 2, 2014

Big tech firms are feeling the pressure from law enforcement to become more involved in the war on terrorism, the BBC reports, to use their services to track and identify potential terrorist and criminal threats. Juxtapose this pressure from law enforcement with these firms’ commitments to preserving consumer privacy and upholding user security, and companies like Facebook, Google and a host of others now find themselves between a veritable rock and a hard place.

Consider the advances in mobile data encryption, uncrackable codes first used by Blackberry and later adopted by Google and Apple in their Android and iOS platforms respectively. While these encryption tools ensure users are free from the prying eyes of Big Brother, the problem is that those who wish to do harm, those who are planning nefarious deeds, and those who really want to keep out of sight from the government can now do so with relative ease.

So what is the responsibility of private enterprises like Facebook and Google when it comes to combating terrorism and fighting crime? Should they make it easier for law enforcement to pry into the private information of their users in an effort to maintain the peace, or is the onus squarely on law enforcement to find their own methods to track and capture terrorists who communicate via social networks?

I’ll say at the outset that whatever the answer is to these difficult questions, the one fundamental principle that needs to be put in place is that law enforcement needs to have clearly defined regulations regarding the legal acquisition of private information, no more of those backdoor covert shenanigans we’re seeing with the NSA’s PRISM scandal.

To that end, I do think it’s reasonable to ask companies like Facebook and Google to establish processes through which law enforcement can quickly and efficiently access pertinent user information, after such agencies receive the legal authority to do so of course.

For its part Facebook says that it already does a great deal to combat terrorism on its social network, “keeping extremist material off the site and collaborating – where the law allows – with law enforcement agencies.” Not only does Facebook have reporting processes in place for users to identify such content, but Facebook employs its own monitoring teams to sniff out and report such controversy.

But there in lies the rub, the difficulty of tracking, finding, and reporting anything and everything that may relate to terrorism or criminal activity. Consider with 1.3 billion users the volume of such questionable content must be quite high, meaning somewhere along the way decisions regarding the severity of certain content must rest with companies like Facebook themselves, putting those companies in a challenging position.

The problem is, of course, that even as firms like Facebook and Google find legal ways to collaborate with law enforcement the criminal element seems to be one step ahead, migrating away from popular social networks towards more obscure—and less regulated—social networks.

In the end companies like Facebook and Google may not have much choice in the matter, as new online surveillance legislation may forcefully conscript these companies into a digital army geared for fighting cyber-terrorism, meaning that user privacy may once again have to take a backseat to concerns regarding public safety.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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