UK: Keyword warning software in schools raises red flag
London, United Kingdom – Schoolchildren in the UK who search for words such as “caliphate” and the names of Muslim political activists on classroom computers risk being flagged as potential supporters of terrorism by monitoring software being marketed to teachers to help them spot students at risk of radicalisation.
The “radicalisation keywords” library has been developed by the software company Impero as an add-on to its existing Education Pro digital classroom management tool to help schools comply with new duties requiring them to monitor children for “extremism”, as part of the government’s Prevent counterterrorism strategy.
According to Impero about 40 percent of schools in the UK already use Education Pro, although a pilot version of the radicalisation library has so far only been rolled out in a few schools.
The keywords list, which was developed in collaboration with theQuilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism organisation that is closely aligned with the government, consists of more than 1,000 trigger terms including “apostate”, “jihadi” and “Islamism”, and accompanying definitions.
Phrases specifically associated with online propaganda produced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) such as YODO (You Only Die Once) and Message to America are also included, as well as some associated with far-right doctrine. It also includes the names of groups and individuals defined as “terrorists or extremists”.
Education Pro enables teachers to monitor students’ online activity and sends them “violation” alerts when a trigger term appears on a screen.
In one example cited by Impero during a promotional event last week in London, a student typing “caliphate” into a search engine would trigger an alert to be sent to a teacher telling them the word “in conjunction with other terms may indicate support for terrorism”.
Teachers can also save screenshots or video of a student’s screen which, Impero suggests, could provide “key evidence” to be shared with Channel, the government’s counter-radicalisation programme for young people. The software also features a “confide” function, allowing students to report concerns about classmates anonymously.
But opponents of Prevent, who say it discriminates against Muslims, warned the software risked alienating Muslim communities and criminalising and stigmatising children.
“This software is another step towards a surveillance state,” Abed Choudary of the Islamic Human Rights Commission told Al Jazeera.
“If we want to avoid a world in which students are constantly being spied on and encourage youthful curiosity, debate and freedom of speech, then we need to boycott this software,” Choudary said.
One political activist told Al Jazeera he was shocked to discover he was listed as an “extremist individual” after his name was featured in a presentation about the software during last week’s Impero event.
“What is it that I and other Muslim speakers say that constitutes extremism?” said Raza Nadim, a spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), a civil liberties organisation that encourages Muslims to become more active in public life.
“MPACUK is one of the most vocal proponents for Muslims getting involved in the democratic process and engaging with the system and finding an outlet for their legitimate anger – and even we are being called extremist. If they have gone after me, then which other Muslim names are on the list? And who is left? Is it the people who agree with the government line?”
Sally-Ann Griffiths, Impero’s e-safety development manager, said the keywords library had been compiled in response to requests from teachers for technological tools to help them fulfil their Prevent duties. Impero also offers keywords libraries for topics such as eating disorders, bullying and grooming.
“It’s not about spying; it is about safeguarding children. A lot of teachers are very nervous about the new duty that is being put on them. They feel a great sense of responsibility because they don’t want to end up criminalising children or making wrong judgement calls,” Griffiths told Al Jazeera.
Griffiths said Quilliam had been a “safe choice” of a partner because of its role in shaping the government’s counter-extremism strategy.
“We needed to make sure that we partnered with someone who understood the government’s agenda. Quilliam got a lot of changes put into the Prevent agenda about extremism and the fact that it can lead to terrorism, and they seemed to be people you could trust to give a more balanced view,” she said.
But critics of Quilliam, which was directly funded by the government until 2011, have questioned the organisation’s independence and academic credentials, describing it as a “propaganda resource” and linking it to neo-conservative networks in the UK and the US.
“The impression that is created by Quilliam is that it is some kind of independent think-tank. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Quilliam was manufactured by the government to legitimise state policy,” Rizwaan Sabir, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University specialising in counter-terrorism, told Al Jazeera.
The expansion of Prevent into schools has been widely opposed by teachers who have complained of being used as “front-line stormtroopers” to spy on students. Many say the policy has undermined trust between teachers and students and stifled classroom discussion of sensitive topics, with some parents telling their children not to discuss politics or religion.
Recent cases of a schoolboy questioned by Prevent officers for Palestinian activism,first reported by Al Jazeera, and another asked if he was affiliated with ISIL following a classroom discussion about eco-activism, have also highlighted concerns about discrimination against Muslim children.
Nadim said he feared the software would result in more mistakes and more children coming under suspicion.
“You will see a lot more over-reporting. If a Muslim child searches for ‘caliphate’, the teacher will start to think, ‘Is something going on here?’ and you start to treat that kid differently.
“This software is almost the end point of the war on terror, which is that you view Muslims through the lens that these people can turn extreme at any point. You might be reading the Quran and having a really bad hair day, and you just think, ‘That’s it, I’m picking up a Kalashnikov!'”
Griffiths stressed that the software was not intended to be used in isolation and compared the keywords to pieces in a jigsaw that could help teachers to spot “early warning signs” and “build up a picture over time”.
“Our software is just one thing in a bigger picture,” she said.
“Monitoring software is not new and students know they are being monitored, so it is about schools handling things in a sensitive way. We are only taking screenshots of things that give cause for concern. If they are doing something that is not a cause for concern, then they have nothing to fear.”
Jonathan Russell, Quilliam’s political liaison officer, told Al Jazeera while the keywords list was “not perfect” and mistakes would be made, he believed it was a step in the right direction, adding Quilliam planned to offer broader counter-extremism training to teachers using the software.
But Nadim said the software and the Prevent strategy raised worrying questions about the limits of acceptable political dissent and activism for Muslims opposed to government policy.
“To say that an organisation like MPACUK is extremist, just because the government hears some things that it doesn’t like, is worrying because it means we have gone down a road where 1984 is no longer a warning – it is a manual for this government.”