Homeland Security and the FBI have long had digital surveillance programs track online presences of terrorist and hate groups—now, with the introduction of a new password-protected iPad and Android app, local law enforcement can have access to a similar list.
The Digital Terror + Hate app, released Tuesday by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization that runs "Museums of Tolerance" in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, features information on jihadists, white supremacists , anti-Semitic and other hate groups. It's a handheld version of the organization's annual digital terror and hate watch lists, which have been used by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement organizations.
The app and project is endorsed by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. He says the app will help local police departments, which don't have the resources to keep tabs on the online activities of hate groups.
"This app is a tremendous resource for law enforcement to help communicate to them the steps to correct and eradicate the threat of hate crimes," Blumenthal says. "At the national level, the FBI is on top of the worst stuff, but at the local level, they're lucky if they have one person assigned to [digital surveillance.]"
Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says the group's crowd-sourced list contains information Homeland Security sometimes misses, especially potentially dangerous "lone wolf" would-be terrorists—those who might receive training online, but act alone, such Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009.
Finding lone wolf terrorists before they strike is like "trying to find a needle in a virtual haystack," Cooper says, but by including the website addresses and social media accounts of many people who run solo hate campaigns, along with providing a geographic search function, law enforcement can narrow that haystack down.
"Once upon a time, you joined a group, you joined the Klan to find like-minded people. No one does that anymore. Years ago, these guys were the equivalent of a one-watt light bulb, no one paid attention to them," Cooper says. With the amplification of the internet, especially YouTube and Twitter, Cooper says that same person "becomes a player."
Cooper advocates shutting down sites that spew hate and terror training, but Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., says that while the Wiesenthal Center's work is "extremely helpful to law enforcement," and can help police learn about patterns of radicalization and terror activity, the sites should stay up.
Terrorism training sites, Jenkins says, provide a "valuable source of intelligence," and by trying to shut them down, America can "get involved in a complicated cat and mouse game, diverting a tremendous amount of resources." It's worth keeping an eye on lone wolves, he says, but historically, they've been "not always very determined, and, extremely fortunately, singularly incompetent."
Current internet tracking by the FBI and Homeland Security has been "extraordinarily effective," uncovering dozens of terror plots since 9/11.
Cooper says he doesn't want to "become big brother," but says it's worth tracking hate-mongers so the community law enforcement officials can be "more proactive."
Sen. Blumenthal takes a more absolute view.
"I've been amazed by the privacy arguments … the internet is one of the most public forums out there," Blumenthal says. "I don't think there's any danger of excessive surveillance."