LONDON — The British government is planning an unprecedented raid on teenagers’ private lives, from their laptops and phones to the classroom—and even their right to freedom of movement.
Prime Minister David Cameron promised Monday to strengthen efforts against ISIS with a broad range of domestic measures, many of which are designed to target young Muslims who could be susceptible to Islamist propaganda.
Parents will be granted the power to cancel their children’s passports if they suspect they might travel to Syria or Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State. Schools and universities have been told to clamp down on extremist behavior, while Cameron threatened to hit young people where it really hurts—by infiltrating social media.
The prime minister accused Silicon Valley of deliberately misleading governments about its ability to monitor what its users are doing.
“Many of their commercial models are built around monitoring platforms for personal data, packaging it up, and selling it on to third parties. And when it comes to doing what’s right for their business, they are happy to engineer technologies to track our likes and dislikes,” he said. “But when it comes to doing what’s right in the fight against terrorism, we too often hear that it’s all too difficult. I’m sorry—I just don’t buy it.”
Britain has already warned that WhatsApp, Snapchat, and iMessage could be banned unless the companies behind the encrypted messaging services agree to pass their metadata to the government for the use of law enforcement agencies.
Cameron’s new demands go even further: Now tech giants must monitor users for signs of radicalization and report propagandists or vulnerable Muslims to the authorities.
The proposals are part of Cameron’s five-year strategy to combat the spread of the Islamist ideology in Britain. Thousands of Britons are feared to have joined ISIS, including a 17-year-old boy who became Britain’s youngest suicide bomber in an attack in Iraq last month.
As well as Internet companies, Cameron said he was determined to enlist teachers, lecturers, and preachers as a network of monitors embedded at every level of society. He called this “the struggle of our generation,” comparing the jihadist ideology to the spread of fascism in the last century.
“This isn’t a pioneering movement. It is a vicious, brutal, and fundamentally abhorrent existence,” he said.
Speaking in Birmingham, Britain’s second city where about one in five residents is Muslim, Cameron called for an end to housing and schooling districts that were effectively segregated along religious lines. He said there were some young people who “hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths.”
“It’s no coincidence that these can be some of the places where community relations have historically been most tense, where poisonous far-right and Islamist extremists desperately try to stoke tension and foster division,” he said.
Cameron’s insistence that the Muslim community be better integrated and forced to accept “British values” is being rejected by some Islamic groups. Arzu Merali of the Islamic Human Rights Commission said the prime minister’s words would make the situation worse.
“Cameron’s claims simply reinforce the now widely held prejudice that Muslim politics and practice are violently inimical to the society we live in,” he said. “It is time for a push back against this divisive and sinister narrative.”
Another group that has pushed back against the Conservatives’ counterterrorism strategy is the National Union of Students, which has expressed concern about “spying” on Muslim communities on university campuses across the country.
Cameron attacked that position directly on Monday as he called for further monitoring of college life and a more rigorous approach to challenging extreme views.
“Confronting nonviolent extremism isn’t just about changing laws, it’s about all of us, changing our approach. Take, for example, some of our universities. Of course universities are bastions of free speech and incubators of new and challenging ideas. But sometimes they fail to see the creeping extremism on their campuses…too often university leaders look the other way through a mixture of misguided liberalism and cultural sensitivity,” he said.
“And while I am it, I want to say something to the National Union of Students. When you choose to ally yourselves with an organization like CAGE, which called Jihadi John a ‘beautiful young man’ and told people to ‘support the jihad’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, it really does, in my opinion, shame your organization and your noble history of campaigning for justice.”
The National Union of Students denies that it ever worked directly with CAGE, an organization that defends terror suspects, even though the group issued a statement praising the student body’s rejection of the government’s counter-terror strategy.