The UK government has responded to a request for clarification over an apparently nonsensical comment from Home Secretary Amber Rudd over the use of “necessary hashtags” to combat online extremism.
The explanation? She was referring to image hashing instead.
In the aftermath of the deadly terror attack in Westminster, London, in March, Rudd appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to discuss the government’s response. She reignited the acrimonious debate over encryption in consumer tech products, saying “we need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp — and there are plenty of others like that — don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate.”
A comment from her later in the interview — that the government needs to use people “who understand the necessary hashtags to stop [extremist material] even being put up” online — drew confusion and mockery, with some suggesting she didn’t understand the tech in question.
But the government’s response is that she meant to say “hashing,” a method for identifying images and content online.
Home Office parliamentary under-secretary Sarah Newton, in response to a question from Labour MP Louise Haigh, wrote that: “The Home Secretary was referring to image hashing, the process of detecting the recurrence of an image or video online.
“Hashing has proved effective in the removal of images of child sexual exploitation and has been used by a number of organisations including the Internet Watch Foundation and INTERPOL.
She added: “In December 2016 at the EU IT Forum, Facebook announced the development of a cross-industry shared hashing database to improve the detection and removal of terrorist content online. The implementation of this database will help to clear large caches of known terrorist content from a range of online platforms.
“The Home Secretary is continuing to challenge Communications Service Providers to improve the automation of detection and subsequent removal of new terrorist content online with the formation of a new industry led forum which will, amongst other things, lead on technical innovations.”
Here’s the relevant back-and-forth between Andrew Marr and Amber Rudd (emphasis ours):
Andrew Marr: Do you quite like the idea of the German plan for fines on companies who put this kind of stuff up?
Amber Rudd: I’m not sure the German plan has been entirely successful. I would much rather have a situation where we get all these companies round the table agreeing to do it. Now, I know it sounds a bit like we’re stepping away from legislation but we’re not. What I’m saying is the best people, who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff even being put up, not just taking it down, but stop putting it up in the first place, are going to be them. That’s why I’d like to have an industry-wide board set up where they do it themselves. They could do this, I want to make sure they do.
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So: the Home Secretary was still and literally calling for proactive censorship.
— Alec Muffett (@AlecMuffett) April 4, 2017