UN report urges internet strategy against terrorism

A United Nations report has urged governments to reach a consensus on surveillance regulations to prevent terrorists operating online.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that despite international recognition of the threat posed by terrorists use of the internet, a concerted strategy to address online activity has been lacking.

According to the UNODC the internet is used in number of ways to support acts of terrorism. This can include posting propaganda for the purposes of recruitment and radicalisation, training, financing, as well as planning and executing physical acts of terrorism. Sites such as Facebook and Youtube are mentioned as platforms used by terrorists. 

However, the UNODC asserts that, equally, the tools made available by the internet should be used by government of the UN’s member states to prevent and deter acts of terrorism. For example the internet could be used to gather intelligence to prevent acts of terrorism, or to build a case for the prosecution of such acts. Countering terrorist propaganda by engaging  potential recruits to a terrorist cause in “constructive dialogue” is cited as a way to address radicalisation.

The 148-page report goes on to acknowledge that overly-stringent anti-terrorism measures create problems surrounding privacy and human rights of citizens, such as tighter controls on ISPs to block access to content.

The report reads: “The issue of the extent to which Governments should regulate terrorism-related content on the Internet is problematic, requiring the balancing of law enforcement and human rights considerations (e.g. the right to freedom of expression).” 

The report suggests that there should be more of consensus among member states over retention of data by ISPs, with policies varying across the world. For example, efforts in the EU to create a cohesive approach have been “problematic”.

Such a strategy involves developing a “universally accepted regulatory framework” in member states for consistent regulations on all ISPs “regarding the type and duration of customer usage data to be retained”.  This would be of considerable benefit to law enforcement and intelligence agencies investigating terrorism cases, the report claimed.

However, the report does seem to promote greater use of surveillance:

“Countering terrorist use of the internet may involve the surveillance and collection of information relating to suspects,” the report states, though it adds safeguards should be in place to “prevent abuse of secret surveillance tools”.

It also contends that governments should create clearer guidance on how private sectors operators assist in undertaking electronic monitoring, surveillance or interception activities on public communications.

We spoke with Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, who commented: “This report is absolutely right to highlight that the internet is a global entity and that action to tackle terrorism must also be global. However, the report conflicts with the approach currently being pursued in the UK by the Home Office.

“Highlighting the need for more preservation of data once an individual is suspected of being involved in crime is far more proportionate than retaining data on every person using the internet just-in-case,” Pickles said. “Equally, the report recognises the role of appropriate judicial authorisations, something entirely lacking from the UK’s structure for acquiring data.”

He continued: “The report identifies a number of challenges, such as speeding up existing legal frameworks for non-UK based companies and better training for investigators that would be a far more effective use of the billions that will be required to fund the Communications Data Bill, if it ever becomes law. Equally, it is far more appropriate to address the limitations placed upon sharing evidence with other countries by data protection legislation than to disregard citizens’ privacy.

“Ultimately this report is one piece in a complex debate, and with China sitting on the UN security council it is still far from true to say the UN has successfully balanced civil liberties online with the legitimate security concerns of some states.”