European authorities have renewed their quest to find a technological solution to help prevent terrorist attacks following last week’s carnage in Nice and Monday’s axe attack on a train in Germany.
According to an EU security official, European surveillance experts are in talks with their Israeli counterparts that have been developing systems to spot lone wolf attackers online. These assailants, acting without direct connections to an organised group, present an extremely difficult problem for the security forces.
"How do you capture some signs of someone who has no contact with any organisation, is just inspired and started expressing some kind of allegiance? I don't know. It's a challenge," EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told Reuters while visiting Israel’s second largest city Tel Aviv.
De Kerchove’s visit to Israel in the wake of the tragic attacks was not coincidental. The Middle-Eastern state, embroiled in a decades-long conflict with its Arabic neighbours, is believed to have developed technology that gathers information from social media to spot early warning signs of someone preparing a solitary act of terrorism.
The technology is not yet fully automated and requires a human researcher to set parameters such as age, religiosity, socio-economic background or links to known militants in the population. Once the group of targets is narrowed down, the system can then automatically detect messages that could signal someone readying an attack.
"We reassess our database daily, based on the changing security needs and what we have learned from terrorist attacks that took place or from captured terrorists," an official who monitors Palestinians in the occupied West Bank told Reuters.
The system processes the suspicious individuals in three stages. First it labels those who meet a certain number of criteria. These are all given a ‘black’ status. The system then collects more data about them. For those who show behaviour indicating possible terrorist activity, the status is revised to 'gray' and the surveillance is further increased. Extremely suspicious individuals who could present an imminent risk are assigned a ‘white’ status and put on individual surveillance.
"If the 'black' group were to number one million, I would anticipate the 'grays' numbering 20,000 and the 'whites' between 10 and 15," the official said, giving hypothetical figures to convey the scale of the Israeli system's data filtration.
However, European privacy protection laws may present a major obstacle for implementing this type of surveillance.
Israel's emergency laws give security services more powers. The state’s intelligence minister Yisrael Katz has recently criticised the increasing use of encryption in public messaging and social media platforms such as WhatsApp, which makes it more difficult for the security agents to detect militant communication.
"We will not block these services," Katz said. "What is needed is an international organisation, preferably headed by the United States, where shared [security] concerns need to be defined, characterised."
Things may be changing in Europe as well. The European Court of Justice issued a legal opinion yesterday stating that collecting data from phone calls and emails is legal if necessary for the security agencies to tackle serious crime.
Even Germany, with its historical dislike of surveillance due to the experience with the practices of Nazi Gestapo and the East-German Stasi police, has started looking for better ways of protecting its citizens against acts of terrorism.
Following Monday’s attack on a train in Wurzburg, during which a 17-year old Afghan refugee injured four people, Germany has said it will increase surveillance at railway stations and on trains. Deutsche Bahn, which runs the German railway system, said it will increase the number of security cameras and boost its security personnel.