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"The frontline is online"

How software makers are being implicated in jihadist terrorism

Coman Hamilton
Much of the debate centres around encryption – image via Shutterstock)

Software’s decision-makers are finding themselves increasingly involved in the debate over online resources for jihadist terrorism, as western political leaders call for more responsibility from tech innovators in the struggle against the Islamic State.

In a fury of finger-pointing following the Paris attacks of November 13, several software creators are now fielding criticism over the role their products have played in jihadist terrorism. As products like Whatsapp and Playstation 4 emerge as possible terrorist communication channels, a number of tech innovators have found themselves in the unlikely position of making decisions that can influence the effectiveness of the Islamic State.

“Why is Silicon Valley helping the tech-savvy jihadists?” asked Clare Foges, chief speechwriter to UK Prime Minister, in a Telegraph article this week. As the Islamic State’s usage of online communication widens, software creators find themselves caught between public demand for encryption and government demand for data.

The ethics of encryption

The debate over technological responsibility in the recent atrocity in Paris largely hinges over whether encrypted messaging was used to co-ordinate the recent Paris attacks.

While jihadist usage of Twitter and print magazines has been deliberately visible, the usage of encrypted messaging services like Telegram in the Paris attacks remains uncertain, with only open text messages uncovered so far. However the Obama administration claims to know that the Islamic State has previously benefited from the widespread availability of encryption.

“The enemy is being aided by Western tech companies”, writes Foges. The UK convervative party speechwriter believes, like the former CIA Director James Woolsey, that Snowden is to blame for the failure to prevent the deaths of 139 individuals in Paris, as his revelations about government surveillance triggered a “race towards deeper encryption”.

Sony (Playstation 4), Telegram and Whatsapp are among the companies being pressured to take an active stance on terrorism by opening up their communication services to government monitoring.

Much of Silicon Valley’s tech leaders have stood by the need for encryption and resisted the repeated calls from politicians to give backdoor access to government agencies. In line with Tim Cook’s statement that backdoor access would have “very dire consequences”, the Information Technology Industry Council, a global advocacy organisation, last week reasserted the tech sector’s stance on encryption.

“We deeply appreciate law enforcement’s and the national security community’s work to protect us, but weakening encryption or creating backdoors to encrypted devices and data for use by the good guys would actually create vulnerabilities to be exploited by the bad guys”.

In spite of the ongoing criticism of message encryption from politicians across North America and Europe, US President Obama has hinted that it would unhelpful to force backdoor access from the tech sector.

The implicated tech companies, many of which already provide data to government agencies, are far from inactive in slowing the Islamic State’s use of their software. The encrypted messaging service Telegram has responded by banning 78 Islamic State-related channels, a method which has had questionable effectiveness in stopping jihadist communication. Meanwhile a Twitter co-founder has received death threats from the Islamic State over the company’s takedown of jihadist accounts.

The fundamental question arising from this debate – should software developers be deciding how their software gets used?

Author
Coman Hamilton
Coman was Editor of JAXenter.com at S&S Media Group. He has a master's degree in cultural studies and has written and edited content for numerous news, tech and culture websites and magazines, as well as several ad agencies.

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