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How the Internet Aids Terrorists — And How It Can Be Used to Stop Them

(Photo: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The terrorist attacks in Paris last weekend have predictably resulted in calls for ratcheting up the Surveillance Industrial Complex and for clamping down on freedom of speech across the Net. They also raised some questions: Is the Internet in fact a breeding ground for terrorists? And if it is, is there anything can we do about it?

Related: Attacks Revive Debate on Encryption, Surveillance

At the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference in Washington D.C. this week, a panel of experts from the U.S. State Department and non-governmental organizations convened to discuss those questions.

Their conclusions: More surveillance is not the answer. And while the Internet can indeed help terrorists extend their recruiting efforts, it can also give us ample tools to combat them.

The medium is not the message

“Is it the Internet’s fault there are terrorists?” asked Nuala O'Connor, moderator of the panel and President/CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “My snarky response is, ‘I was born in Belfast in the 1960s. There were plenty of terrorists long before there was an Internet.’”

Still, the panelists agreed, the benefits that the Net provides to everyone — primarily the ability to instantly communicate with strangers halfway around the world — also accrue to those seeking to find fresh recruits for terrorist organizations.

An ISIS propaganda tool (Photo: The Guardian). 

“You don’t go online shopping for shoes and accidentally become a jihadist,” said Erin Saltman, senior researcher for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a ‘think and do tank’ that combats online extremism across a wide range of ideologies.

“But we do know the Internet is a catalyst for radicalization,” she added. “Processes that previously might have taken a few months or even a year — to go from following a benign ideology to traveling abroad to become a foreign fighter — in some cases take only a few weeks.”

Things go better with hope

Rather than attempt to shut down all attempts at inciting radicalism, added Saltman, a better long-term solution is to study what these online recruiters are doing well and then turn their tactics against them.

Related: Here’s the Manual the Islamic State Uses to Teach Its Soldiers About Encryption

“We need to take the marketing tools normally used to promote Coca Cola and Adidas online and use them to counter extremists,” said Saltman. “That’s much more effective than taking down these videos and hoping the problem goes away.”

Part of that effort includes recruiting credible voices — such as victims of extremism, former extremists, and Islamic scholars — to counter the propaganda being delivered by jihadis.

That’s likely to make some people uncomfortable, noted Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer for the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank based in the UK.

“If this is a branding issue or a strategic communications issue, we’re not going to win this by holding up liberalism as the antidote to Islamic extremism,” Russell said. “We have to hold up Islam.”

Russell added that jihadist propaganda creates the “mood music to which suicide bombers dance,” which is played very loudly across the Internet.

The solution, he said: Either drown out the noise or disrupt it by playing better music.

Snowden blowback

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices are questioning whether the U.S. and its allies went too far in scaling back its surveillance dragnet following the disclosures by Edward Snowden. They also wonder whether tech companies such as Apple and Google should open 'backdoors’ to their encryption technology for the benefit of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

(Photo: Yahoo/Good Morning America)

But panelists questioned how valuable enhanced Internet surveillance would actually be.

Related: What Politicos Don’t Know About Encryption Could Make Us All Less Safe

Human intelligence is still the most valuable type of defense, says Lara Ballard, special advisor on privacy and technology to the State Department.

“The most effective method for preventing terrorist attacks when in their planning phases is not online surveillance,” says Ballard said. “It’s the voluntary walk-in, the relative who feels safe going to the police to say, 'My cousin or my son is planning something crazy.'”

Still, at a certain point, stronger surveillance measures have to play a role, she added.

“There is a point at which the conversation goes from public to private, and that may be the point where you look at doing something more targeted.”

In any case, the aftermath of a major terrorist attack is not the time to make these decisions, added O'Connor, who spoke with Yahoo Tech privately after the panel concluded.

“We don’t know enough yet whether technology played a significant role in either helping or hindering the attacks,” she said. “This is not to say that tech should not also be used for closely managed surveillance of truly bad actors in the world. But what we’re looking for is the thoughtful, mindful, legitimate, and limited use of technology, data, and surveillance to prevent harm.”

You can reach Dan Tynan on Twitter here.