Tech companies step up terror fight

With the spread of mobile phones and the internet, many believe technology could be a crucial tool in gathering intelligence and disseminating information in emergencies.  Over the past few years, Africa has endured a string of terrorist attacks, with one of the most high-profile incidents being the recent assault on Kenya’s Garissa University. Kenya is […]


With the spread of mobile phones and the internet, many believe technology could be a crucial tool in gathering intelligence and disseminating information in emergencies. 

Over the past few years, Africa has endured a string of terrorist attacks, with one of the most high-profile incidents being the recent assault on Kenya’s Garissa University. Kenya is working to secure itself against further tragedy, and many in the technology industry believe tech could be key in this fight.

On 2nd April, 2015, militants from the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab stormed Garissa University, taking some 700 students hostage: 147 people were killed and many more were injured, making it the most deadly attack in Kenya since 1998.

Reports in the local media suggest intelligence was leaked to universities prior to the attack, with the University of Nairobi posting internal warnings to students to remain vigilant. But there were no established systems in place to enable those rumours to make it through to Kenya’s law enforcement agencies.

According to Daudi Were, project director at Kenyan data mapping software company Ushahidi, technology-based tools could be put to use to support law enforcement by helping to collect – and verify – unofficial reports.

Ushahidi’s online platform was launched in 2008 in response to the outbreak of post-election violence in Kenya. The platform enabled citizens to report incidents of violence – and peacekeeping efforts – via the internet and mobile phones. These were then documented and mapped across the country on the Ushahidi platform. During the post-election episode, over 45,000 Kenyan citizens used the platform to crowd-map the incidents taking place.

According to Were, technology-based tools which facilitate the collection, analysis and dissemination of accurate information, are “crucial” to prevent and respond to terrorism. In particular, he says the data collected can contribute to informing law enforcement bodies. 

“Preventing and responding to terrorism requires law enforcement agencies to be able to process large amounts of data into information and intelligence that provide them with enough context to plan effective engagement,” says Were.

Having information-collection platforms in place – whether online or through telephone hotlines and other channels – can help build a strong “early-warning” system, he suggests. Were believes tech-based platforms can play a key role in filtering through data and verifying information, helping to isolate information.

“Technology platforms can assist in preventing and responding to terrorism by developing processes through which all the data that is collected by law enforcement agencies is taken quickly through a verification process,” he says.

“This process can involve checking the validity of the source, collating various pieces of information to create a more wholesome picture, confirming key pieces of information with different sources on the ground.

“Tools like Ushahidi that enable you to process the data and turn it into actionable information and intelligence that can be used reliably by decision makers are crucial.”

Wisdom of the crowd

Citing the Garissa attack as a case in point, Were says the attack underlines the extent to which technology has the power to assist in gathering intelligence.

“Even though data and information on imminent attacks was received days in advance, the lack of systems to process and verify and act on that information meant it was not used effectively, which allowed the attack to take place and to be much more deadly that would have otherwise been the case,” he says.

However, perhaps the most central role of technology in the fight against terrorism is its ability to draw in all members of the community.

“Most people agree that ordinary citizens should be involved in the prevention and response to terrorism. However, these noble thoughts are ineffective without having tools that enable ordinary citizens to share information quickly and privately, and tools that enable law enforcement agencies to process, verify and escalate that information promptly. Technology does not replace citizens or law enforcement agencies but the right platform can make that relationship a lot more effective.”

Given Africa’s mobile boom, Jacob Korenblum, president and CEO of mobile solutions company SoukTel, argues that mobile tech is key when it comes to security, not just in terms of gathering information but in disseminating it.

“There are definitely roles that mobile tech can play in crisis responses, whether an attack or a natural disaster,” he says.

“In Kenya, for example, everyone is using mobile, everyone is using messaging services – such as SMS, or WhatsApp. If crisis strikes, that’s a very powerful tool, particularly for sending information.”

Korenblum says the main benefits of using mobile tech in crisis situations are its capacity for scale and the speed of communication. In particular, Korenblum says, mobile technology can be used to disseminate reliable information such as directions for support services, where to get medical help, where to go and what to do.

“Mobile can also help divert people away from infrastructure which is already overloaded [such as full hospitals], which could otherwise further increase the disaster,” he adds.

Furthermore, Korenblum points to the power of mobile tech to localise information through its geolocation aspect. Mobile towers can detect the locations of users, making it possible to disseminate more specific information.

Korenblum suggests that the possibilities will only increase as technology becomes more advanced, and argues that the ‘internet of things’ could play a vital role in responding to crisis events in the future – though he concedes that smart-homes and smart-vehicles may be some way off in Africa.

“If you had a smart-home, and your home could tell you ‘Don’t go out, there’s a danger, or crisis’, that would be desirable. Also, if your car could do the same and ultimately steer you away from danger, that would be great, and is what most smart-car manufacturers are probably going for,” he says.

For now though, Kenya continues to recover from the deadly assault on Garissa University, which struck at the country’s heart as it targeted its youth. However, Kenya’s tech-forward population is not just rebuilding but trying to learn lessons from the tragedy in the hope that they can lead their country and the world in implementing tech-based solutions to avoid similar tragedies down the line.

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