The British Government Knows Where Terrorists Gather on the Internet, But It’s Not Telling

Floral tributes to the victims of the Westminster terrorist attack are placed outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Monday March 27, 2017.

Floral tributes to the victims of the Westminster terrorist attack are placed outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Monday March 27, 2017. Matt Dunham/AP

Another encryption debate is brewing.

In March, in the wake of the Westminster terrorist attack that left four dead, the world’s biggest technology companies were summoned to a private meeting with Amber Rudd, the home secretary of the U.K. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft were given a scolding for not doing enough to limit the spread of terrorism content. Rudd also touched on encryption, having earlier singled out encrypted data on Facebook’s WhatsApp for giving terrorists a place to “hide.”

Rudd’s comments on encryption and content policing once again raised the possibility of a government-mandated “backdoor” as a solution, one that civil rights groups and technology companies have rejected. After Rudd’s comments, the Open Rights Group pointed out backdoors can create greater vulnerabilities.

To get more detail on the home office meeting, Quartz on March 31 filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the minutes of the meeting and a list of who attended beyond the statements released by the Home Office and the companies themselves. The response June 19 was less than illuminating, except for what the U.K. would not say.

The U.K. government wouldn’t release information on either of our requests, beyond saying “senior representatives” of the four tech companies were among those who attended. It acknowledged the public had a “legitimate interest” in seeing this information, but cited national security reasons and breach of confidence of the parties involved, for denying Quartz’s request. Here’s the wording of the denial citing national security:

“Disclosure of the information in scope of your request would reveal those organizations that are working with the Home Office to combat terrorism especially in the online space.

By releasing the names and minutes we are informing the public which sites host the most content and therefore potentially providing information that could make it easier for those searching for this material to locate it on the internet.

This would serve to undermine the Prevent Strategy, and hence weaken and prejudice the national security of the U.K. There is a serious terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and disclosure of the information requested could put national security at risk by jeopardising or negating the Government’s efforts to prevent acts of terrorism and terrorist related crime.”

In other words, the Home Office is saying in order to protect the U.K. from terrorism, it can’t tell us what the internet’s terrorism hotspots are for fear of making propaganda material easier to find. That argument should cut both ways: Knowledge of those hotspots would also make such content easier to avoid, or to warn against.

But that’s clearly not how the Home Office sees the issue.