European powers are looking to Israeli-developed technology to develop better means for spotting “lone-wolf” militants based on their online activity, a senior EU security official said on Tuesday.
Last week’s truck rampage in France and Monday’s axe attack aboard a train in Germany have raised concern about self-radicalised assailants who have little or no communication with militant groups that could be intercepted by spy agencies.
“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 on the sidelines of a intelligence conference in Tel Aviv.
Internet companies have begged off when asked to monitor their own platforms’ content for material that might flag militants, De Kerchove said.
He said they had argued that the information was too massive to sift through and put into context, unlike child pornography, for which there were automatic detectors.
“So maybe a human’s intervention is needed. So you cannot just let the machine do it,” De Kerchove said. But he said he hoped “we will soon find ways to be much more automated” in sifting through social networks.
“That is why I am here,” he said of his visit to Israel. “We know Israel has developed a lot of capability in cyber.”
Israeli security agencies once focussed on “meta data”, or information regarding suspects’ communications patterns. Now, beset by Palestinian street attacks, often by young assailants using rudimentary weapons and without links to armed factions, they have refocused on social media as a complementary means of gaining advance warnings from private posts.
An Israeli military official who administers these methods said human intervention is required to set parameters such as age, religiosity, socio-economic background or links to known militants for the population being monitored. With the pool of potential suspects thus narrowed, the system can flag social media messages that may spell an imminent 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,” said the official, who monitors Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the technologies.
The Israeli system distils the population being scrutinised through three stages, the official said. All are labelled “black” initially; those who match enough of the parameters to warrant extra attention are “gray”; and, of those, the ones whose conduct is deemed suspicious enough to trigger individual surveillance or a police arrest and interrogation are “white”.
“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.
As De Kerchove was at pains to make clear to the conference, European standards of civil rights, such as privacy, make the introduction of intrusive intelligence-gathering technologies in the public sphere and aggressive police follow-ups difficult.
Israel’s emergency laws give security services more leeway, but its intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, called for cooperation with Internet providers rather than state crackdowns. He cited, for example, the encryption provided by messaging platform WhatsApp which, he said, could be a new way for militants to communicate and evade detection.
“We will not block these services,” Katz told the conference. “What is needed is an international organisation, preferably headed by the United States, where shared (security) concerns need to be defined, characterised.”