Israel: Social media monitoring nabs would-be attackers
ISRAELI authorities have foiled over 200 Palestinian attacks by monitoring social media and sifting through vast amounts of data to identify prospective assailants ahead of time, according to Israel’s public security minister.
These pre-emptive actions put Israel at the forefront of an increasingly popular — and controversial — trend used by intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world that use big data technology to track would-be criminals. While the technology appears to be effective, its tactics drew angry Palestinian condemnation and have raised questions about civil liberties.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the national police force, said Israel’s use of algorithms and other technology has been an important factor in lowering the number of knife and shooting attacks in Israel in recent years. He plans on sharing Israel’s knowledge with counterparts at an international security conference he is hosting this week.
“The experience we now have, we can help other countries deal with this kind of terrorism,” he said. He said working with allies “can lead us to a much better result in fighting lone wolf terrorists.”
But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank, called the Israeli profiling techniques “horrific” and an “added dimension” to Israeli control over Palestinian lives.
“They are trying to justify the various ways in which they violate the Palestinian people’s rights, including the right to due process and the right to privacy, using Facebook and using social media as a means of gleaning information to prove people’s guilt ahead of time,” she said.
In September 2015, Israel found itself facing a wave of stabbings, shootings and car rammings carried out by “lone wolf” attackers, or individuals unaffiliated with militant groups acting on their own. It was a significant departure from past waves of organized violence led by armed groups like Hamas.
Since then, Palestinians have killed over 50 Israelis, while Israeli forces have killed over 260 Palestinians, most of whom Israel says were attackers. However, the number of attacks has dropped significantly — from 170 “serious attacks” in 2016 to 90 last year to 25 this year, according to Erdan’s ministry.
Israel has blamed the attacks on anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian social media, while Palestinians say despondent attackers were driven by a lack of hope after decades of Israeli occupation and repeated failure in peace talks.
Research compiled by Erdan’s office points in both directions. Erdan said that interviews with jailed attackers have found that many suffered from personal problems, such as depression or family pressure to enter an arranged marriage, but were also inspired to act, often with little notice, by violent material online.
Israel has long urged Facebook and Twitter to remove what it sees as inciting material posted online. Erdan said Facebook has “improved” responses to Israeli complaints, while Twitter is still “very bad.”
A goal of the conference is to rally support for concerted pressure on the social media companies to do a better job of policing content, or to consider common legislation to define “red lines.”