Why is a company involved in racial profiling part of a European Union team dedicated to monitoring “terrorist content” on the internet?
Amsterdam-based Euvision Technologies says that it specialises in “concept detection software”. This sounds innocuous: until you examine how the firm is using this equipment.
According to its website, Euvision has the “exclusive right” to sublicense the Impala video search engine, which was pioneered by researchers in the Netherlands. The company gives an “impressive list” of concepts that Impala can “detect” in digital media. I clicked on the heading “faces” and was intrigued to learn that the technology can help distinguish people based on their skin pigmentation. Impala can be used for “ranking Caucasians”, it says, showing a variety of photographs and screen grabs, including one of Silvio Berlusconi. Although it’s not stated plainly, the underlying message is unmistakable: Impala can just as readily “detect” or “rank” Arabs and Africans.
A similarly implicit message features in the example of “people with beards”. Among the head shots displayed are several brown-hued men, one clearly a Muslim. What’s going on here? Computer-savvy Islamophobia?
Euvision is participating in Clean IT [information technology], an EU-funded project which began last year. Essentially a “partnership” between industry and government, the declared objective of this project is to develop a set of guidelines for “countering illegal use of the internet” from a “counter-terrorism perspective”.
The involvement of Euvision raises serious ethical questions. The firm stands to gain by talking up the potential that its products offer to law enforcement authorities. New (or repackaged) thinking about “illegal use of the internet” presents it with commercial opportunities. So surely there is a conflict of interests if it is advising policy-makers about how to snoop on those who frequent internet chat rooms.
Nor can its apparently trail-blazing work on racial profiling be brushed aside. Harassment based on colour or ethnicity is a daily occurrence in the real world. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain recently published data indicating that black people are 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched by that country’s police than white people. Targeting a community in this bigoted way is not acceptable on the streets. Why should it be any more acceptable online?
The organisation European Digital Rights has got hold of a confidential document setting out the key recommendations being assessed by the Clean IT team. Many of these proposals for discussion are an affront to freedom of expression and other basic civil rights. “Knowingly providing hyperlinks on websites to terrorist content must be defined by law as illegal,” the paper says. If implemented, academics and journalists could conceivably be prosecuted for referring to things they have learned about “terrorism” on the internet.
I have deliberately put the word “terrorism” in quotation marks. The starting point of any study on “terrorism” should surely be to outline the problem. As the Clean IT project doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of the problem it is fighting, I looked up the European Commission’s latest thinking. The Commission’s home affairs department has a helpful glossary of the topics in its purview. To my surprise, this glossary also puts “terrorism” in quotation marks.
“In the absence of a generally accepted definition under international law, ‘terrorism’ can be defined as the intentional and systematic use of actions designed to provoke terror in the public as a means to certain ends,” it says. “Terrorism can be the act of an individual or a group of individuals acting in their individual capacity or with the support of a state. It may also be the act of a state, whether against the population (human rights violations such as forced labour, deportation, genocide, etc), or in the context of an international armed conflict against the civil population of the enemy state.”
By favouring this definition, the Commission seems to be signalling an abhorrence of state violence. The reference to genocide is significant. A UN convention on genocide describes it as “a crime designed to destroy a national, ethnic, religious or racial group in whole or in part by, among other things, causing serious physical or psychological harm to members of that group or imposing intolerable conditions of life on them”.
The US-led invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya appear to have caused “serious physical or psychological harm” to whole communities. White phosphorous shells dropped on Fallujah in 2004 are continuing to bring misery, according to evidence amassed by Iraqi doctors. Fifteen percent of all new-born babies in Fallujah have congenital defects, by some estimates.
If the US has resorted to genocide more than once in the past decade, then its government can legitimately be described as one of the deadliest terrorist outfits in the modern world. Assuming that the Clean IT folk take the Commission’s glossary seriously, they are obliged to treat anything that the Washington authorities place on the internet as “terrorist content”. Linking to that content would be illegal, if the project’s recommendations are stretched to their logical conclusion.
Sadly, I rate the likelihood of this happening at zero. The financial value of the “global security industry” grew almost tenfold over the past 10 years. As it’s now worth 100 billion euros per annum, fighting the symptoms of “terrorism” – while allowing their causes to fester – has become a massive business. It is a business that embraces odious practices like racial profiling without a second’s thought.