Is the new ‘anti-radicalisation’ software for schools flawed?

The Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015, which comes into force on July 1, mandates schools to “prevent pupils being drawn into terrorism”. A duty that divides opinions among teaching staff. One solution is to sell schools software that monitors online behaviours for hints of radicalisation.

At the blunt end of criticism is Impero, who launched a pilot at 16 schools in Leicestershire, London, County Durham, Essex, Warwickshire, Yorkshire and Staffordshire. Schools involved with the pilot already have contracts to buy or rent other software from Impero, and trial the anti-radicalisation software for free.

Securus and Future Digital also offer schools a range of ‘anti-radicalisation’ monitoring software.

Impero’s partnership with the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation helped the company create a glossary of ‘trigger words’ that include “jihobbyist” (a sympathiser but is not an active member) and “Message to America” (a term related to ISIS propaganda). The glossary contains 1,000 terms.

“YODO”, short for ‘you only die once’ is an apparant ISIS recruitment parody of YOLO. But ownership of the term is more complex. A national campaign that sought to create dialogue around the importance of discussing death and bereavement used the hashtag “YODO”.  BBC Trending also analysed the hashtag.

So how did “YODO” become a potential trigger term? Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani and Abu Daighum al-Britani, left London to join Rayat al-Tawheed, an ISIS faction, are credited with the infamous “YODO” parody. Another slick propaganda meme parodies the popular video game franchise Call of Duty.

Abu Daighum al-Britani reportedly died  fighting in Syria in 2014. But that story merely created a window for Imran Khawaja to ditch the Daighum pseudonym and re-enter Britain. Khawaja was arrested in Dover and later admitted preparing for acts of terrorism, attending a camp, receiving training and possessing firearms. That admission of guilt resutled in a 12-year prison sentence.

On a wider note, the power of ISIS’ social media might owe more to software installed by thousands of supporters. The app, Dawn of Glad Tidings, allows for a centralisation of ISIS messages that flood online channels and potentially inflates their online reach.

Returning to Impero, other keywords intend to capture far-right sentiment, and that includes searching for the white supremacist forum Stormfront. Another glossary term is “Pogrom”, which translates as “devastation”, captures the historical moments of state-sanctioned violent antisemitism in Russia during the 19th century.

Critics maintain this software will target Muslim students. An accusation Impero refutes as a member staff told Religious Reader: “The software is not about catching students out. It is about safeguarding not criminalising or punishing.”

All captures are in the form of screen shots or screen videos so a human judgment call by teachers can be made as to context and significance.”

“A picture can paint a thousand words and can be an enabler to open up supportive and constructive dialogues with not just students, but also parents, carers and specialists if required”.

Nor does the glossary contain terms specific to Islam ‘unless manipulated by extreme violent organisations as part of their recruitment or propaganda techniques’.

Impero maintains that their radicalisation policy ‘dovetails’ alongside their other e-safety and safeguarding policies around ‘racist, homophobic and abusive language terms as well as other safeguarding policies that include terms related to suicide, self-harm and eating disorder’. Impero presently supplies 40 per cent of British secondary schools with its e-safety and safeguarding software packages.

The company freely acknowledges any pitfalls during the trial period and welcomes feedback in lieu of an updated version release.

Impero confirmed that Quilliam, schools and other potential organisations will continue to review the glossary terms on a ‘regular basis’.