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Technology key to new UK counter-terrorism strategy

Technologies such as machine learning and data analytics are key to the UK government’s updated counter-terrorism strategy

The UK government says its updated counter-terrorism strategy provides a more agile, flexible and coordinated approach to preventing, detecting and disrupting terrorist attacks, as well as limiting the impact of attacks and recovering swiftly – and the use of technology is key.

Home secretary Sajid Javid said: “As the threat evolves, so must our response. Ultimately, our approach is about ensuring that there are no safe spaces for terrorists to operate – internationally, in the UK or online.”

Javid said the counter-terrorism strategy will be underpinned by new legislation to enable the police and security services to disrupt terrorist threats earlier and will include updating existing terrorism offences for the digital age.

He said the strategy includes new multi-agency approaches that involve MI5 and the police using and sharing information more widely to improve understanding of those at risk of involvement in terrorism and enable a wider range of interventions, all of which involves information technology.

“The government will work more closely with the private sector on a range of issues, including protecting our economic and physical infrastructure, gaining faster alerts to suspicious purchases, continuing to make it difficult for terrorists to use the internet for propaganda, and ensuring we have critical access to communications,” said Javid.

“Just as terrorists seek to exploit technology, the government will harness developments in technology, including machine learning and quantum computing which have the potential to dramatically change and enhance counter-terror operational capabilities.”

Terror groups exploit the internet to promote their messages, and the UK plans to take the lead on international efforts to improve counter-terrorism globally, through ministerially led campaigns on aviation security and preventing terrorist use of the internet, the strategy said.

The strategy commits to focusing online activity on preventing the dissemination of terrorist material and building strong counter-terrorist narratives in order “to ensure there are no safe places for terrorists online”.

The strategy also outlines a commitment to collate and analyse greater volumes of high-quality data to enhance the UK’s ability to target known and previously unknown persons and goods of potential counter-terrorism concern, to target the insider threat by strengthening information-sharing about those working in sensitive environments in airports, and to maintain the UK at the forefront of developing world-leading screening and detection technologies at the border, including behavioural detection, new detection techniques, data analytics and machine learning.

Although the threat from cyber terrorism may increase in the future, the current technical capability of terrorists is judged to be low, the strategy says, but adds that evolving technology creates new challenges and risks as well as opportunities in fighting terrorism.

“Developments in artificial intelligence will allow us to filter and identify crucial information faster than ever,” it says. “Virtual or augmented reality gives counter-terrorism teams the opportunity to plan for a wide variety of scenarios in a safe environment. We will have new technologies that enhance our detection and screening capabilities, for example at borders, airports and crowded places.

“Quantum computing, along with other cutting-edge innovations, has the potential to dramatically change and enhance our counter-terror operational capabilities. For example, the power of quantum computing can be combined with artificial intelligence to improve the speed at which large datasets can be sorted and mined for key information that would be of benefit to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”

Constructive partnerships

The strategy adds that the government will work across government and industry to maintain the advantage as terrorist groups seek to adopt new technologies, building on constructive partnerships with industry groups and standards bodies.

The government also undertakes to bring forward online safety legislation “at the earliest opportunity” and to seek opportunities to exploit the advancements in technology that will improve the effectiveness of the UK’s counter-terror response.

“We will place a renewed emphasis on our engagement with communications service providers, recognising that the internet has been a key way for radicalisers to communicate their propaganda, and for terrorists to plot attacks,” the strategy states.

“We will take robust action to ensure there are no safe places for terrorists to spread their propaganda online and to ensure we have the critical access we need to information on their communications. We will build on our constructive relationship with the tech industry to seek more investment in technologies that automatically identify and remove terrorist content before it is accessible to all, and learn from our work to tackle other illegal and harmful content.”

Referring to the controversial Investigatory Powers Act, the strategy said the government will continue to ensure that the capabilities the police and the security and intelligence agencies use to keep the country safe are underpinned by a robust legal framework.

“The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 ensures that law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to detect, investigate and disrupt crime, including terrorist attacks, subject to strict safeguards and oversight,” the strategy states.

In April 2018, the government was given until 1 November 2018 to rewrite a key section of the Investigatory Powers Act after the High Court declared it unlawful in a judicial review brought by human rights group Liberty.

The High Court gave the government six months to amend the surveillance law, which obligates telephone and internet companies to retain records of their customers’ email activity, phone use – including their location – and internet browsing history for access by a wide range of government bodies.

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