Detecting Online Terrorist Content and the Confines of Privacy


Terrorist attacks aren’t new: they’ve been a feature of warfare ever since humans formed societies. As humanity evolves, the methods we devise in torturing fellow humans and using terror as a tool for imposing power will unfortunately evolve in tandem.

But is it that easy to do so? Privacy laws, particularly in Europe, have been designed to ensure that the electronic communications of millions of people using devices such as smartphones are protected from interception by law enforcement and secret service agencies. Why should the overwhelming majority of law-abiding citizens have all their communications intercepted and filtered purely in the hope of weeding out the lone exceptions that exhibit dangerous and threatening behaviour. What justification is there in keeping millions of individuals under close surveillance, tapping in to messages that concern their dinner plans next Tuesday or photos of yet another breakfast plate, especially when terrorists have come to use increasingly sophisticated ways of avoiding detection, and of blending into mainstream communications on social media almost seamlessly.  The dilemma is not insignificant. Balancing the fundamental right to privacy of millions of individuals against the threat posed by a few thousand individuals is a difficult balancing act to achieve.

Across Europe and beyond, a group of technical researchers, law enforcement agencies and legal experts in EU data privacy laws have set out to conquer this difficult task: that of detecting online terrorist content in real-time, with the aim of preventing the senseless deaths of hundreds or thousands through violent terrorist attacks. The group, organised as the RED-Alert Project ( includes law enforcement agencies from the UK, Spain, Romania, Moldova and Israel, as well as researchers working in technology from Universities and private companies in the UK, Spain, Romania, Israel and Hungary. A team from MITLA, the Malta IT Law Association ( is also represented on the Project and has been entrusted with carrying out the legal research into the privacy law implications set out by laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation, as well as the intellectual property issues that arise from creative projects such as this.  The Project is a three-year project funded by the EU Commission as part of its Horizon 2020 innovation and research programme and will run until next year.

The skills, technologies and expertise being employed in order to devise a solution to the problem are multi-disciplinary. The wealth of real-life, practical experience of some of the law enforcement agencies has been coupled with cutting-edge technology in the realm of language, voice and facial recognition and other artificial intelligence technologies, all while being rigorously scrutinised to ensure that none of these practices falls foul of the current suite of privacy laws that are in force across the EU. This has perhaps been one of the most significant challenges that the Project has had to face and has exposed the frequent tensions that exist when technology and the law need to co-exist.

The Project is a sign of things to come. As our daily lives have come to be almost completely dependent on technology, so has crime – including terrorism – evolved into behaviour that uses technology as a means to achieve its end. Unless the way we police and protect society  moves to strategies that think outside the box the consequences of it falling behind are too horrific to imagine.


Article provided by: Sarah Cannataci and Gege Gatt (MITLA, Malta)



Discover more about INPLP, the INPLP-Members and the GDPR-FINE database

Dr. Tobias Höllwarth (Managing Director INPLP)

What is the INPLP?

INPLP is a not-for-profit international network of qualified professionals providing expert counsel on legal and compliance issues relating to data privacy and associated matters. INPLP provides targeted and concise guidance, multi-jurisdictional views and practical information to address the ever-increasing and intensifying field of data protection challenges. INPLP fulfils its mission by sharing know-how, conducting joint research into data processing practices and engaging proactively in international cooperation in both the private and public sectors.