EU launches Internet Referral Unit to combat online extremism

The EU has launched an anti-terror unit tasked with identifying extremist online content and supporting member states with operational and strategic analysis

Europol has officially launched the European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) to combat terrorist propaganda and related violent extremist activities on the internet.

The move is in response to the increase in terrorists' use of the internet and social media. According to Europol, Jihadist groups, in particular, have demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of how social networks operate. They have launched well-organised, concerted social media campaigns to recruit followers and to promote or glorify acts of terrorism or violent extremism.

To tackle this phenomenon, EU member states have agreed a co-ordinated European prevention approach, which includes establishing the EU IRU that is dedicated to reducing the level and impact of terrorist and violent extremist propaganda on the internet.

The EU IRU at Europol in The Hague is tasked with identifying and referring relevant online content to internet service providers, and supporting member states with operational and strategic analysis.

The unit will draw on existing relationships with law enforcement authorities across the EU and beyond, the private sector and the on-site Europol Liaison Officers' network. It will rely on secure communication channels and databases, as well as Europol's data protection and confidentiality arrangements.

"Europol has co-operated closely with the EU member states and the European Commission to develop this new capability, aimed at reducing terrorist and extremist online propaganda,” said Europol director Rob Wainwright.

“We have also built a constructive new partnership with relevant social media and other private companies. Together we will deliver a determined response to this problem affecting the safety and liberty of the internet,” he said.

In March 2015, Wainwright joined the growing list of law enforcement officers to raise concerns about encrypted communication services online.

Encryption has become one of the biggest problems for police and security services in dealing with threats from terrorism, he said.

Wainwright warned that encrypted communcations make it difficult to monitor terror suspects, echoing comments by FBI director James Comey, former European Cyber Crime Centre head Troels Oerting and GCHQ director Robert Hannigan.  

Wainwright said he is concerned that technology firms are providing services for customers to encrypt data on their smartphones and develop instant messaging apps. "We are disappointed by the position taken by these tech firms and it only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people that are abusing the internet,” he said.

Talking about the launch of the EU IRU, European home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said the recent terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait have shown how important it is to combat terrorist threats with determination.

“The establishment of the EU IRU is one of the first deliverables of the European Agenda on Security. It will provide operational support to member states on how to tackle more effectively the challenges of detecting and removing the increasing volume of terrorist material on the internet and in social media,” he said.

Around 15 Europol officials and experts from national authorities in the EU will form the first phase of the IRU team.

Europol said this will grow in number and capability over the next year, reaching full maturity by July 2016.

“The full impact of the IRU will be delivered by leveraging the combined resources of social media partners and national expert contact points due to be established in all member states, working as a concerted community,” Europol said in a statement.

Europol has played a leading role in an increasing number of international operations aimed at clamping down on cyber criminals.

Most recently, police arrested 130 suspects in connection with cyber fraud at 140 airports around the world in an operation co-ordinated through Europol, Interpol and Ameripol.

According to Europol, fraudulent online purchases of airline tickets using stolen credit card data is the fastest growing type of fraud, and is estimated to have resulted in €1bn in losses to the airline industry.

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