British Prime Minister Theresa May has found something to blame for Saturday night’s terror attack in London: the internet.
May, responding to the attack by three young men who killed seven people and injured scores more, called for an end to the “safe spaces” that the internet provides, and for measures to “regulate cyberspace.”
“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet—and the big companies that provide internet-based services—provide,” May said Sunday night outside 10 Downing Street. The statement, which appears on her official Facebook page, is among four solutions she offered for fighting terrorism. “We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning.”
What May suggests will not work. As WIRED and others have explained time and time again, undermining encryption—which is what May is calling for here—so the “good guys” can see what the “bad guys” are up to jeopardizes everyone’s safety. Simply put, weakened encryption makes everything from world banking to travel and healthcare riskier.
When May and other politicians call for encryption-busting protocols, what they really hope to do is turn back the clock to a time when the internet didn’t connecting everyone and everything and underpin how the world works. They need to realize that time is past. Regulation, fines, pleading—nothing will return the world to the pre-internet era.
A British proverb applies well here: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. May might wish for some way of securely disrupting online cryptography so it can be used only for good, but wishing can’t make it so. Instead, May and her ilk must learn to focus on solutions that can make a difference. The British prime minister made four suggestions for combating terrorism. Here, we offer four that experts agree make more sense.
Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom
Though the internet helps terrorists communicate (and celebrate their actions), experts agree it does not cause terrorism, or even do much to radicalize. “The internet is often oversold in terms of radicalization,” says Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism expert at RAND. Despite what you’ve heard, he says, most conversations among extremists occur face to face.
“Traditionally the way [UK extremist group] Al-Muhajiroun have worked is that most of their radicalization has occurred offline,” says Michael Kenney of the University of Pittsburgh who has extensively studied the Al-Muhajiroun extremist group that one of the London attackers has been reportedly linked to. “It occurs in small group settings. It’s a group of guys. They gather, they talk, they indoctrinate each other,” he says. Expanding online surveillance, eliminating full encryption, and even preventing the spread of violent videos can’t eradicate that.
Terrorism researchers note that violence in Europe and the UK follows a familiar pattern, one that can teach governments how to counter the problem if they expend money and resources where they can do the most good. Most European jihadis are young Muslims, usually men, living in poor neighborhoods with high unemployment. They often are second- or third-generation immigrants from countries they have never lived in, they are not well-integrated into society, and they are unemployed or poorly educated. Their lives lack meaning and purpose.
Scapegoating the internet as the root of the problem risks ignoring the underlying problems: a vast swath of youth that have left behind, bullied, or ignored. These disaffected teenagers and young adults also often are angered by what they consider bad foreign policies. “They kind of exist in this netherworld that makes them vulnerable” to radicalization, says Clarke.
Values Starts With Education
Instead, Clarke, Kenney, and experts like Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment say the focus must be on offline solutions. Namely, education. Clarke advocates for “a really broad expansive overhaul of education in immigrant areas, and an emphasis on youth work.” Hegghammer has called this a “Marshall Plan for improved education in immigrant-heavy areas.”
In her approach to improving counterterrorism, May never mentioned education, though it may offer the best way to, as she says, “turn people’s minds away from this violence—and make them understand that our values —pluralistic, British values—are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”
Foster Strong, Positive Communities
May’s suggestions include longer prison sentences for terrorist-linked activity, something experts agree with. Current sentencing, they say, tends to give extremists and terrorists just enough time to develop new contacts, and perhaps plan attacks. “Jail can be a networking event for these guys,” says Clarke. Longer sentences could deter that.
Kenney adds another suggestion: empower families and friends to intervene when they see someone being radicalized. Teach them how to counter the rhetoric of jihadism. “Many young men and women when they radicalize it’s something that takes place over many months, in some cases even years. And if you’re a member of a group like Al-Muhajiroun, you’re not quiet, you’re trying to recruit others.”
This poses its own problems, though. In both the London and Manchester attacks, friends of the attackers reportedly reached out to the authorities, but British law enforcement is overwhelmed by the thousands of people already on government watch lists.
Then Turn to Technology
Tech companies and governments can work together to combat terrorism. But as US Representative Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, said Sunday on Fox News, “We have to have a factual approach.” Rather than attempt to turn the internet into a world of walled gardens, the government should make smarter investments in certain technologies, like using biometrics at the border to better track people on watch lists. Or encourage tech companies to adopt technologies like eGlyph, a system developed by computer scientist Hany Farid, of the Counter Extremism Project, that can help the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google identify violent videos and ban them.
Farid’s team hopes to address the problem of groups gathering online to plan attacks by developing an early warning system that uses linguistic analysis on sites like Facebook or Twitter. “Not to say you are bad or you are good but to simply give these companies some ability to monitor content and to say ‘look, there’s some bad stuff happening here,'” Farid says.
“The idea that we are going to somehow eradicate the problem by more closely monitoring the internet and Facebook is unrealistic and not likely to reach those intended outcomes,” says Kenney. “It also reflects a lack of understanding of how radicalization actually occurs.” The sooner May and politicians like her accept that reality, the safer the world will be.