The RCMP is struggling to combat online extremism, according to documents released as the government is pledging to crack down on terrorists’ use of the internet.
The documents, obtained by Global News, show the RCMP has been asking communications companies to remove extremist internet content on a “case-by-case” basis.
But they also reveal the difficulties police are having investigating and disrupting online terrorist activity.
The obstacles listed by the RCMP include increasingly tech-savvy and sophisticated opponents, legal and jurisdictional barriers and rapidly changing online platforms.
“We face significant challenges in maintaining the necessary expertise and adapting as quickly as society in working with these new platforms as they emerge,” the declassified RCMP documents read.
“Therefore we are often reactive to material, rather than being in a proactive position to identify activity of concern, investigate and disrupt it.”
Police are also trying to balance conflicting demands to remove content that fuels violent radicalization while preserving it for investigations and prosecutions, according to the documents.
Prepared for a presentation by a senior RCMP official, the documents outline “our efforts to investigate and disrupt terrorist activity online” and “some of the challenges we face in doing so.”
Dated Dec. 19, 2017, the documents were requested by Global News under the Access to Information Act 14 months ago but were only recently released by the RCMP.
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“Like other law enforcement agencies in the West, the RCMP is increasingly facing a perfect storm of increasing online-facilitated extremism, shortage of cyber-talent and questions over how democracies should legislate access in these areas, if at all,” said Prof. Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
Asked to comment, the RCMP did not address the challenges described in the documents but said the police force “may notify communication service providers when their terms of service have been breached.”
“When appropriate, the RCMP requests the removal of content and/or seeks judicial authorizations to obtain online communications as evidence in criminal investigations,” said Cpl. Caroline Duval.
Carvin said the documents showed the RCMP had begun paying closer attention to the internet and social media and their role in violent radicalization.
“One of the big conversations to come out in the wake of the Alek Minassian attack was whether or not security officials should be more online and monitoring what is happening,” she said. “So apparently that is going on, but we know little about the scale and scope of these activities.”
Islamist and right-wing extremists alike use online platforms to radicalize, recruit and communicate. Following the New Zealand mosque attacks, social media companies and governments vowed to tackle online extremist content.
Facebook and other companies have banned hundreds of pages for violating their community rules, but criminal prosecutions are rare in Canada and extremists continue to exploit the internet.
The RCMP documents point to the internet’s central role in today’s radical violence but also to the problems investigators are encountering as anti-terrorism has increasingly meant policing the online world.
“The internet is a key source of material that contributes to radicalization to violence in Canada,” according to an RCMP slide show titled “Radicalization to Violence Online: A Law Enforcement Perspective.”
While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were once the main sites used by extremist groups, there has been a “increasing trend” towards encrypted applications such as Telegram, it said.
The popularity of encryption has become a growing frustration for police, who want access to such communications, but companies have warned that doing so risks opening doors that will inevitably be exploited by hackers.
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A second document — speaking notes for a presentation at the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism — by Joanne Crampton, the RCMP’s assistant commissioner for national security, said extremists were using other platforms as well.
Public uploaders and file hosting and archiving sites are also being used to house terrorist content, and communication and content distribution are occurring on the Dark Web, according to the speaking notes.
“Let’s be clear, in our experience, individuals are not simply stumbling upon a video and becoming radicalized. There are always other factors at play that are unique to the individual,” Crampton’s notes said.
“However, having access to the material, and a forum to discuss it with like-minded others, directly contributes to the radicalization to violence process. By limiting access to these spaces and content, we can prevent some from becoming radicalized in the first place.”
The documents said the RCMP was working with companies “to request removal of content, by carefully weighing the risk of leaving content on the site against the risk of removing content and negatively impacting an investigation.”
Figures released by Google show it has received 64 requests from the government of Canada since July 2015 to remove content for reasons of privacy and security.
Police have also sought court orders to preserve online communications so they can be used in criminal proceedings, according to the documents, which called digital evidence “critical to our ability to disrupt the threat.”
But they said that while the RCMP’s dealings with communications companies had been “very positive” and those companies had removed content brought to their attention, there was “likely more we can be doing together.”