Terrorism? Now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand

Ed Macnair addresses the need to strengthen cyber-security in businesses and schools to take a step in the right direction in the fight against terrorism.

Ed Macnair, CEO, CensorNet
Ed Macnair, CEO, CensorNet

Terrorism has never been the most uplifting topic to talk about and perhaps that's always been part of the problem. Collectively we need to find ways of tackling subjects that we'd rather not discuss at parties or at work. If for no other reason than because they're allowed to thrive and flourish on the very fact that we'd rather just pretend they didn't exist - until the very day Andrew Parker spoke up.

In September, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, launched an unprecedented attack on social media companies, saying they have a "responsibility" to pass on intelligence of potential terrorism. He questioned why internet companies would not come forward if they had suspicions of a terror risk.

He also warned Britain was facing its gravest threat from fanatics and his agency had foiled six major plots to attack this country in the last year – the highest he has ever known. I agree with him - but I would even go a step further. Every organisation has a responsibility to report on information that may cause people harm. It's understandable that we feel talking about terrorism is unpleasant but this can no longer be used as an excuse to avoid debating the options for prevention in a multi-cultural society. There is a growing consensus that we need to have unpleasant conversations and ask the hard questions or nothing will change.

The devastation caused by radicalisation affects everyone and can be inflicted by anyone with extremist motive. The ironic by-product of the reticence to openly discuss radicalisation is allowing terrorism to thrive and its online presence to vicariously leak its way into the school classroom and the workplace. So how do we equip organisations with the tools to identify and spot potential radicalisation of their students or employees?

The good news is that the Law has stepped up with ‘Prevent Duty' – part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act – that requires schools, councils, prisons, police and health bodies to have “due regard to prevent people from being drawn to terrorism”. This is a good starting point because as a bare minimum it provides schools, teachers and executives with a framework to begin to address what has previously been a sensitive topic.

Its role is to protect people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism in the eyes of those who seek to impose their beliefs on those easily influenced.

Protecting those who are at risk of radicalisation clearly isn't an exclusive remit of the schools but for businesses too. Alongside teachers, managers and executives need to play their part in spotting and tackling extremism. But making that work on a practical level can be challenging.

The trouble is that the world is changing. Social media and mobile apps are altering the online playing field beyond measure.  Plus, extremist groups attempting to radicalise children or spread their beliefs to people across the social or professional networks online are only ever a click or two away. Using Facebook as one example, all it takes is for a friend to ‘Like' or ‘Share' a post (even in error) and they could unwittingly give some very unsavoury content the ultimate platform.

There is, of course, no ‘single' answer to eliminating the risk of radicalisation or spread of extremist views but there are sensible measures that can be taken by schools or businesses to significantly reduce the risks.

For starters, every organisation needs to have safeguarding policies in place and protect users from extremist material when accessing the internet. This is particularly important for schools to support the intentions of the Prevent Duty and to give teachers the strongest chance of capturing any nefarious behaviour.

When it comes to security technology, as a minimum, every organisation should implement robust web security and content filtering technology to protect children or employees from inappropriate messages and content, but it doesn't stop there. With the growing popularity of mobile devices and apps, web security technology also needs to provide cloud application control functionality that allows schools and organisations to monitor access to these social media sites and search the message posts for keywords associated with radicalisation or terrorism; providing teachers and executives with a meaningful vehicle for informed action.

Neither Cyber Security nor the Prevent Duty are likely to single-handedly end terrorism, but their evolution is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and it has forced the topic of radicalisation into the public domain and onto our screens.

The willingness to address the extremist topic is on the rise. The courage to have the hard but necessary conversations has begun and the combined endeavour of the Government and technology leaders is providing a much clearer set of guidelines to better protect children and employees from the growing threat of radicalisation.

Contributed by Ed Macnair, CEO, CensorNet

Editor's note. This article was written prior to the Paris attacks.  SC seeks to provide a forum for discussion and invites contributions from across the industry's spectrum of views, including, for example, both privacy advocates and those who might support encryption back-doors.