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Big Data and Counter-Terrorism: Uses and Boundaries

Big Data and Counter-Terrorism: Uses and Boundaries
19th January 2021 Dr. Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi
In Insights

This blog post is a concept note for a T.M.C Asser Institute/ICCT workshop on uses of big data in the counter-terrorism context. The workshop is expected to take place in 2021.

Big data holds the potential of transforming security practices. This potential has already been used by numerous states to respond to transnational terrorist threats, which have intensified since the early 2000s. Contemporary terrorist threats are considered discrete, unconventional and difficult to anticipate. For this reason, big data is attractive to states as it facilitates predictive security strategies.

T.M.C. Asser Researcher and ICCT Research Fellow Dr. Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi will convene an interdisciplinary workshop in January 2021 that will bring together scholars from different fields (cognitive scientists, social and political scientists, legal scholars), but also actors of the justice system and policy makers. Participants will explore the ways in which big data reshapes security practices in the counter-terrorism context, from administrative measures and criminal sanctions, to monitoring in detention, post-detention surveillance, but also to border control and target selection in armed conflicts.

In the counter-terrorism context, under the various applicable legal frameworks, actors can be interested in the same individual: the same person can be targeted overseas, controlled at the border, and incarcerated in their country of origin for having travelled to an area where a terrorist group is established. One common denominator at the core of their strategies and practices is the shared objective of risk assessment and threat anticipation.

This shared objective, accompanied with data collection tools and algorithmic data processing, translates into new practices. While, traditionally, target selection of non-state actors at war follows the observation of someone’s actual participation in hostilities, data collection tools extend the scope of target selection beyond this moment. It gives the idea that the state can have sufficient data, other than (and before) actual involvement in acts of hostilities, to identify who belongs to a terrorist enemy group. Data collection technologies securitise and transform borders – or, traditionally, territory separators – into distributive and digital infrastructures. There is also a growing practice of pronouncing administrative measures and criminal sentences on the basis of digital communications or online behaviour showing belonging of the individual to a terrorist group, before acts of violence materialise. In all these practices, under all the related branches of law, actors are attracted by the same technological tools to conduct risk-assessment strategies.

These communities of interest and practice are substantially connected with one another. They all entail to imbricate digital and non-digital tools; they relate to placeless digital networks and simultaneously involve territorially-rooted actors. Their activities are neither exclusively national, nor completely global: they are sites of transformations of the state and its traditional categories. Participants in the workshop will discuss how these transformations are accelerated by new technologies and particularly salient when it comes to the relationship between security actors and contemporary terrorist groups.

Yet, although they are interconnected, these communities are quite autonomous from one another and very rarely come together. This workshop offers a unique opportunity to identify where practices align or diverge, but also to identify when they influence and overlap with one another. Indeed, these practices and their overlap might very well foster legal changes, implicit or explicit, and the blurring of traditional dichotomous distinctions: criminal/enemy, battlefield/non-battlefield, peace/war, etc. Participants will investigate whether these tendencies are enhanced by the data-driven nature of security practices, and whether and how to clarify confusion.

This is a non-exhaustive list of the transversal questions that will drive the collective reflections:

  • How and to what extent does the use of big data to counter terrorism reshape security practices?
  • How do the different types of security practices overlap with one another? (Logics of war applied to domestic practices? Logics of law enforcement applied to intervention in foreign territories?)
  • How does this overlap affect each community, reshaping their role and modalities of intervention?
  • How does it affect traditional boundaries of time and spaces of war and peace, of domestic and external? To what extent do/should we think and work beyond traditional categories and legal domains to counter terrorism?
  • How should the relevant legal frameworks (administrative law, criminal law, criminal procedure, human rights law) evolve to counter terrorism in an efficient and rule-of-law compliant manner?
  • What functions do predictive security practices – from predictive criminal sentencing to profiling and triaging individuals at the border – perform? (Exclusion, deterrence, rehabilitation?)
  • How do predictive security practices affect societies? (Entrenching new social hierarchies, stricter features of normality and over-inclusive abnormal category?)

The workshop will not be open to the public as it aims to perform the function of a working group. However, it will be followed by further research, public conferences and publications on the topic.

Dr Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi is a Researcher in the ‘Human Dignity and Human Security in International and European Law’ strand at the T.M.C. Asser Institute (University of Amsterdam) and a Research Fellow at ICCT. Her work reflects on counter-terrorism and on our evolving legal and policy capacity to deal with security threats, where new forms of non-state transnational risk, counter-risk strategy and technology are in play. Her research interests and expertise are in public international law, international humanitarian law, human rights law and (international and European) criminal law, which altogether allow to explore counterterrorism policies in a comprehensive manner.