How do criminal and terrorist organisations exploit the Internet?
Contemporary terrorist and criminal organizations increasingly exploit the Internet to spread their message and gain support throughout the world, using the Web as a communication tool, in particular for recruitment and propaganda activities, but also for disinformation, raising funds, organisation, planning, and financial transactions.
As part of the EC funded DANTE project, eighteen partners from ten countries have collaborated over the past two years to prevent potential terrorist risks in three areas:
- propaganda (recruitment, incitement, radicalization, disinformation),
In every terrorist organisation, admittedly the most consequential factor for its sustainability is manpower. Having this in mind, terrorist organisations often distribute propagandistic content on the Web for alluring individuals that are prone to be radicalised. The propagandistic content mainly comprises information around religious and political issues that terrorists provide as guidelines to justify their illegal and violent activities.
Training and knowledge sharing
The increasing availability of online sources makes retrieving digital training material exceedingly easy. More and more terrorist organisations create online sites in the Surface, Deep, and Dark Web, where people can access and download training materials. Thus, it is easier for interested people, especially lone actors, to enter in contact with materials that years ago were very difficult to find. Furthermore, going to far and dangerous training camps is not mandatory anymore and all the needed information can be reached from home.
Identifying potential terrorists has become a challenging issue for law enforcement agencies who are searching for these individuals online and are forced to monitor hundreds of digital accounts and to follow their online activities.
Money underpins all terrorist activities. Without money, propaganda, training, recruitment, and support are less effective or null. Therefore, the disruption of terrorist financing activities is a key element and tool in any fight against terrorism.
Fundraising terrorist activities are nowadays established in online sites that are publicly available to others. Interestingly, social media have rapidly gained so much popularity that they are used for touting fundraising campaigns so as to elicit the money of persons that are potentially “mesmerised” by the criminal ideological scope. Notably, terrorist organisations often provide fraudulent reasons for their campaigns to tempt more people to donate money. Furthermore, they usually create contrived charitable organisations to allure people that are unaware of the real destination of their donations.
Over the last two years, the EU funded DANTE project partners collaborated to provide law enforcement agencies (LEAs) with a complete framework and platform to perform online counterterrorism and intelligence activities. The aim of their work was to deliver more effective, efficient, automated data mining and analytics solutions and an integrated system to detect, retrieve, collect and analyse huge amounts of heterogeneous and complex multimedia and multi-language terrorist-related contents.
These new technological solutions monitor both the Surface and the Deep Web, including Dark nets to detect potential terrorist-related activities and people, with a special focus on online fundraising activities. Naturally, the detection and analysis of fundraising activities require and imply also the ability to detect and monitor propaganda, training and disinformation online activities and contents, closely related to and combined with raising funds.
The DANTE platform provides strong support to LEAs
- in their struggle against terrorist online training sites
- in detecting online propagandistic content and early radicalised individuals in minimum time, so as to anticipate further development of the organisation
- in identifying fundraising activities that are incited by terrorist organisations
The project assisted them in automatically locating old and new sites, monitoring the updates in contents and discovering terrorist groups or individuals accessing forbidden material. Most importantly, it allows LEAs to concentrate on suspicious accounts and to save precious time for advanced investigations.
Legal and ethical challenges
The development of digital tools for law-enforcement purposes raises numerous ethical and legal challenges. Trilateral collaborated closely with KU Leuven (KUL) to clearly and precisely identify the potential issues raised by the DANTE platform, primarily in terms of the right to privacy and data protection and the risk to generate unwanted personal or social impacts.
This identification phase then served to develop mitigation measures to potential ethical and legal issues that may emerge in the development and use of the platform. These measures were put in place during the design of the tools, in particular by developing a privacy-by-design methodology and sensitising DANTE technology developers and LEAs of the social risks of big data technologies.
We also formulated accompanying measures to the use of the DANTE platform, i.e. organisational processes to put into place by LEAs to ensure adequate use of the platform and reduce any potential ethical and legal risks.
Setting the ground for further research
The DANTE project successfully concluded in February 2019. Final results were presented at a final conference in Rome with more than fifty attendees, primarily members of law-enforcement agencies as well as representatives of the European Commission, security experts and researchers. Together with KUL, Trilateral presented the key takeaways of the ethical and legal analysis and recommendations that were developed in the DANTE project to make sure the lessons learned in DANTE could contribute to practices and future research in the field of intelligence and counter-terrorism.
For more information contact our team:
Anaïs Rességuier, Research Analyst at Trilateral Research