From cybercops to cybercrime: developing tools to spot online radicalisation

Why do some radicalise, while others don’t? Whoever finds the answer, may well be able to prevent a lot of victims and internet-based crimes. To help them zero in on the issue, the European Commission granted 200,000 Euros to the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) in line with the Horizon 2020 project called ‘PROPHETS’. Supplying family and friends with indicators that their loved ones are getting desensitised, and providing law enforcers with tools to identify potential offenders, CESAM co-director Saskia Bayerl of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) hopes to address cybercrime before it takes place.

Cybercrime is on the rise. It’s not just identities being stolen, or orders getting paid, but never delivered. It’s the same system behind the sexual exploitation of children, human trafficking and terrorism. Issues that are intertwined and all use similar mechanisms, Bayerl explains. Nevertheless, it’s hard to predict who will join these networks and who will not.

No clear indicators

Identifying those vulnerable to crime is challenging. Neither nationality, education nor social-economic status can determine who will become radicalised and who will not. There are groups that may be prone to a certain type of criminal activity, but these are often very specific cultural or social networks, she stresses ‒ findings within those groups cannot be extrapolated to include wider communities. As the infamous crime boss Willem Holleeder does not represent the entire Dutch male white population, so IS jihadis do not represent all Muslim immigrants. 

There are, however, certain psychological and behavioural traits that may give some clue as to whether someone is becoming open to radicalisation, Bayerl notes. Often, these are people who feel they’re not valued in society. There’s a process that often starts with demoralisation and becoming ethically desensitised, which may then lead a dehumanised view of others. People’s networks narrow, they’re no longer open to alternative views, and gradually become susceptible to influencers who will offer them anything from an ideology to money.

Characterising cybercrime

A lot of research is currently being done into various kinds of cybercrimes, but most of it focuses on specific streams of information through the perspective of a particular discipline. IT specialists are working on software that automatically identifies child pornography, while the police follows human as well as drug trafficking, and psychologists study lone-wolf attacks. The three-year Preventing Radicalisation Online through the Proliferation of Harmonised ToolkitS (PROPHETS) project aims to combine the efforts of CESAM and 15 other academic, justice and police partners in 10 EU countries. By joining the project, Bayerl hopes to get a better idea of the underlying features that define all these different forms of cybercrime, and develop tools to improve the support of law enforcement agencies that will ultimately safeguard citizens.

Dr. Saskia Bayerl

Petra Saskia Bayerl is Associate Professor of Technology and Organizational Behaviour. Her research interests lay in the fields of human-computer interaction, the implementation of information systems, new media and communication. Her current research focuses on privacy, surveillance and emerging technologies als tools for citizen participation in the creation of public safety.

Photo Eye (CC): C.C. Chapman

More information

Read more about CESAM's research projects here