This App Hunts Terrorists

For years, a behind-the-scenes, citizen-built intelligence file has helped law enforcement officials understand hate speech and terrorist activity online. Now it's coming to the iPhone.

Everyone's aware that jihadist forums exist, but have you ever actually seen one? I haven't! And I don't particularly want to--I figure the fewer FBI watch lists I'm on, the better. Even if I did, they're hard to find by design. Like, where would I start? What do I Google? I mean, is Bing better for stuff like this? Alta Vista?

These are real questions for people in law enforcement--part of the job is knowing when and how potentially dangerous people use the internet. The FBI and everyone else under the Homeland Security umbrella has a vast amount of data on this kind of stuff, but they're not always eager to share--even with the local police officers that are presumably on the "front lines," as HomeSec types like to say.

That's where the Digital Terrorism and Hate app comes in. Built by the Simon Weisenthal Center, it's meant to be a portable database of everything horrible that you know is out there but have never seen.

The SWC has been releasing annual reports on online hate speech and terrorism for more than 15 years, but they're best known for their public campaigns against anti-semitism. It's an officially Jewish, openly pro-Israel group--it's named after a notorious Nazi hunter--so its work does have a obvious focus.

The Digital Terrorism and Hate Project reports have long covered much more, though, and have over the years become a sort of CliffsNotes for online extremism, from anti-semitism to white supremacy to Arabophobia to homophobia. In recent years, it's accumulated a wealth of data about how terrorists, or would-be terrorists, are using the internet.

Previously, the report was available for order to law enforcement, government officials, community organizers and some other interested parties--it was up to the Center who got it. The web app, which is designed for smartphones but works on any computer, is similar: You only get access after the SWC has vetted you. "We don't want to help the bad guys, you know," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the SWC, told BuzzFeed FWD.

If you're accepted, you'll get access to a fairly huge searchable database of websites, videos, images and profiles that are alternately obvious and shocking. The bulk of the database of online hate speech, which ranges from the expected (forums like Stormfront) to the obscure (a Ku Klux Klan photo sharing site, not unlike Flickr) to the I'm-not-so-sure (the entry about Foursquare's "Palestinian Territories" location will seem partisan to some). In any case, Cooper says this information is more about education than action. "The real goal is to make sure the community knows what's going on," he says. It's a crash course in internet horribleness, basically, and while this part of the database won't be too surprising to people spend a lot of time online, it may be for a police officer, a lawmaker or a minority advocate who doesn't.

I'm reflexively skeptical of both the efficacy and intentions of any and all things "Homeland Security," and this is no exception: For people of a certain severe mindset--one often possessed by people in positions of power, I think--this body of information, taken as a whole, may help foster or sustain paranoia. That said, as a body of information, the online terror database is where stuff gets really interesting.

Here you'll find information about instructional bomb-making videos, posts about suicide bombing tactics, recruiting materials, and dossiers on some of the internet's most notorious radicals, or potential "lone wolf" terrorists--a guide to the guides. It's kind of thrilling, actually--this is truly illicit stuff, the kind of material you don't just happen across in day-to-day clicking, and that you'd actually be scared to visit. As often as possible, the database includes the location of the sites' proprietors and hosts, which are often in the US.

The database is far from exhaustive, and it has its weak points. The app gives users a link to contribute their own tips, which Cooper hopes will help build a sort of ad-hoc national security apparatus, less cumbersome than its official counterpart and built from the bottom up. "We assume the big boys have most of the material," says Cooper, "but we'll send it up their way." You know, just in case.

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