As news comes in of another horrifying terror attack in London, I am left, some 8,000 miles away tracking the developments on Twitter until eventually I can take no more of the bile and anger. As I turn off the torrent of people wanting to express, emote and own a small part of the response good old politics rears its head.
The current UK Prime Minister Theresa May has put the blame squarely on technology. Having a Facebook account, using WhatsApp or WeChat or any of the other many messaging apps, watching a video on You Tube – all these things are now the mark of a terrorist.
To quote Theresa May “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services, provide.” She continued: “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorism planning.”
What Theresa May gets wrong is thinking that terrorism happens because of technology. Terrorism happens because of hate, because of misguided thinking and yes, sometimes because people with just that little quirk towards the cruel feel that their difference can be justified by associating violence with a cause. In their minds by doing so they’re not “bad hombres”, they are freedom fighters, martyrs, heroes.
While there can be no doubt that technology and services like Facebook and Twitter can and are used by people with bad intent, the reality is that is a microcosm of the world available online. It’s a bit like blaming van makers for creating tools of terror, or saying that if only the Wright Brothers had focused a bit more on gardening and a bit less on flight then we’d never have had airplane hijacks.
And if we do start holding the Internet companies accountable for all the content on their sites then what civil liberties are we handing over to our governments and to our app providers? With the ability to track people who search for any word associated with terror or terrorism will a simple Google search lead us into darker places?
Technology – the Internet – is an easy target. Anger spreads quickly online, and, as I learnt, it can feel like a window into everyone’s ugliest thoughts. But technology is still just a tool. In blaming technology we are failing to see the benefits better use of bits and bytes can bring – whether that’s enabling biometric passports to assess risk but also ease traffic. Or the use of facial recognition to monitor crowds and to track down suspects on the move. Or the app recently launched in South Africa to help prevent bullying and child abuse by making it easier to report.
Devices are allowing the creation of more information at greater speed than ever before. Technology is the only way we can take that deluge of information and turn it into analysable data. Public safety agencies have a massive challenge in sanitizing, aggregating and visualising that data in a manner that supports pattern recognition and anomaly identification – to use that data to prevent and solve crime. The thinking is that this kind of data allows agencies to be proactive policing rather than reacting to incidents. Using the backbone of the Internet we need to give those we trust to keep us safe with solutions that have embedded analytics to provide alerts based on real-time data.
As we create all that data on our personal devices we have the opportunity as individuals to contribute to the solution. By providing ordinary citizens with the tools to alert agencies to the things that we see in our day to day lives that just don’t feel right means that we are able to tap into the human network through the internet. In Singapore, one of the safest cities on earth, people are encourage to download the SGSecure app that both delivers information in times of need but also allows citizens to share information real time, securely and without creating the kind of panic and misinformation seen on Twitter after so many attacks. According to a recent Accenture Consulting paper 62% of citizens are prepared to share information in returned for improved security.
So while all praise and thanks has to go to the citizens and police, paramedics, firefighters who step up when terror attacks happen, perhaps rather than branding the Internet as a safe space for terrorist ideology to breed we need to approach it as the platform that might just help keep us safer for the long term. Perhaps we need to reclaim technology and the Internet for ourselves.