Tech That Takes the Controls from Terrorists
"Enough is enough," U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May declared after the London terror attack of Saturday night, the third one this year. But what she proposed to counter the terrorist attacks was, essentially, some freedom of speech restrictions, more powers for law enforcement and longer sentences for terror-related offenses -- the same old toolbox that has been used for almost two decades.
There are other effective measures that hardly ever get mentioned, such as making sure cars and trucks are equipped with systems that make it hard to weaponize them. Given London has now had two attacks where vehicles were used to run down pedestrians, it's surprising that this hasn't come up.
The problem with the traditional tools isn't that they are ineffective -- it's that they're being used to maximum capacity.
The U.K. recently passed the Investigatory Powers Act, the most sweeping surveillance law in the Western world. It has put in place numerous counter-terrorism measures, especially since 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn attacks May for trying to "protect the public on the cheap" -- but while there was a reduction in overall policing numbers during May's time as Home Secretary, that trend has been reversed lately and police have been successful in preventing a number of attacks. They acted extremely efficiently last Saturday, shooting the terrorists a mere eight minutes after being called.
May talks about "regulating cyberspace" to make it difficult for radical ideologists to preach online. That, arguably, is one area where anti-terrorism measures haven't been taken to their limit in the West because of freedom of speech concerns. But the experience of countries that have no such quibbles shows that it's a dead end. Russia, which was recently shaken by a major attack in the St. Petersburg subway, has some of the toughest internet censorship laws in the world. While it makes perfect sense to regulate social media in the same way as TV stations, terrorist agitators have lots of other opportunities to reach their audience, ranging from email and online messenger spam to the vast "dark web" the governments are unable to regulate.
Governments ought to offer less generic reactions to the forms terror is taking. Of the three U.K. attacks this year, two started as attempts to mow people down with vehicles. This is an increasingly frequent terrorist practice, which has recently yielded gory results in Nice, Columbus and Berlin as well.
At least this part of the attacks (though not the subsequent knifings) could have been prevented or at least mitigated by modern technology known as autonomous emergency braking. This is generally a life-saving technology that has been shown to reduce rear-end collisions by 38 percent, and that, in its current forms, will stop a vehicle before it hits a pedestrian. In Berlin, the truck used by Anis Amri to plow into a Christmas market last December was equipped by an AEB system; it ultimately stopped the vehicle, preventing more deaths than the final casualty count of 12. The reason it didn't stop earlier is that the driver can ignore the system's initial warning, overriding it for a short while; in such a scenario, brakes are only applied after the collision.
The European regulation, adopted in 2012, required that all new vehicles come equipped with AEB starting in 2015. It decrees that the driver should be able to shut off the automatic braking function. The latter wasn't a problem in Amri's case -- he apparently didn't even consider whether the Polish-owned truck he had commandeered was equipped with the anti-collision system. But regulators would clearly make life much harder for terrorists planning to weaponize vehicles if they required that the systems couldn't be manually overridden when a collision with a human is imminent. That wouldn't make cars more dangerous: Current technology allows the vehicle to "see" the full range of options in a dangerous situation more effectively than a human driver can.
The EU regulation was a major step forward (in the U.S., automakers have agreed with regulators they would equip every new car with AEB only by 2022). Before it entered into force, only some 32 percent of new cars sold in the Netherlands, 25 percent in Germany and 21 percent in the U.K. came with autonomous emergency braking. Banning manual overrides would be another useful step.
Obviously, there is still a large pool of older vehicles for terrorists to choose from. The average car on European roads is almost 10 years old. Phasing them out faster would be a hugely unpopular move, but it could probably be sold, especially if the exchange of old vehicles for new ones were subsidized, as it was in many countries during the global financial crisis.
Shrinking the range of easy options for a DIY terrorist isn't worthless. It's the principle on which airline security is based, for example. Had car rental companies and other commercial fleets been obliged by law to use only AEB-equipped vehicles, Saturday's attack (which used a Hertz rental) could have been mitigated.
The low-tech alternative -- used extensively in Turkey and Israel, where weaponized cars became a reality earlier than in the West -- is to install bollards and other vehicle barriers in those parts of cities where terrorists are likely to strike, or whether the number of victims can be large. This is already being done around London tourist hotspots. Berlin ordered Israeli-designed barriers after the Christmas market attack. But there are limits to this strategy in the public areas of many old European cities.
Countries with stricter gun laws -- including the U.K. -- have less gun violence. Would-be terrorists in such countries are drawn to easier solutions. Stricter vehicle safety regulations, and more conscious efforts to make streets safer from car terrorism, would drive down the number of deaths from attacks like the recent series.
That, of course, doesn't preclude the need to fix more complex problems such as the flawed economic and cultural integration of immigrants or the terrifying efficiency of terrorist propaganda. But when it comes to security, treating the symptoms is a smart immediate response, probably a smarter one than imposing stricter internet censorship.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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