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October 2017
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Cyber Warfare in the Age of Terror

How ISIS and intelligence agencies fight the communication battle behind the scenes

The November 13th massacre in Paris left at least 128 people dead. The coordinated and systematic attacks carried out in 6 locations in and around Paris left the city in chaos and as the investigations began, one large question remains: How is it possible that the attackers were able to communicate, plan and carry out the attacks, whilst remaining undetected on the radar of authorities? This shows a clear challenge and limitation of intelligence trying to detect communication of terrorist groups in various ways.

The challenge is two-fold. It lies not only in the complexity of the issue, but in the increasing sophistication of terrorist networks to communicate in hidden ways using encryption technology and the Dark Web. Various governments and intelligence agencies are trying to monitor the communication of Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaida and others, however there are clear limits to this.  ISIL has been deemed one of the most effective radicalized groups in using social media for recruitment as well as communication with potential followers in the West.


Intelligence vs. Encryption Technology  

ISIS released in January a list of applications for IPhone and Android phones and ranked them from safest, to safe, moderately safe and finally unsafe in their English magazine “Dabiq”. Apps include familiar WhatsApp ranked as Unsafe, FaceTime as moderately safe, Telegram as safe and as the safest ChatSecure and SilentCircle. Many of these apps were created for commercial purposes, but due to the simple access and availability these apps are easily exploitable. After the release of the list, many ISIL accounts on Twitter switched to Telegram.
FBI director, James Corney, said at the Aspen Security Forum earlier this year, that the main propaganda to attract followers occurs on platforms such as Twitter, however the communication is then quickly transferred to encrypted messaging systems. “And so that’s what I mean by the needle becoming invisible.  We can, with court authority, get access to the Twitter contacts, but we don’t have the ability to break strong encryption.”


As the ISIL propaganda surges on platforms such as Twitter, ISIL is able to reach more people and therefore, the number of home-grown ISIL sympathisers grows, increasing the possible threat of an attack. Coaching and guidance on how to plan an attack is information that is attainable to the average citizen who has access to the internet or a smartphone. There is no need to travel to Syria to be trained, and therefore potential terrorists never appear on the radar of intelligence.


Another method of encrypted communication that is believed to have been used in the November Paris attacks is the Sony Playstation.  This method of anonymous communication is effective because a high number of people are using this tool to communicate during gaming. According to Forbes Magazine, the Playstation Network has 65 million active users making the surveillance of such a network tedious, to say the least. Therefore, the use of Play Station consoles are yet another method in which the surveillance is low, and chances of misuse are possible.


Dark Web – the Internet for Terrorists too

The Dark Web is a collection of networks, websites and online content that is not available through regular search engines such as Google. It is approximately 500 times larger than the websites available to us through common search engines. Beatrice Berton from the European Union Institute for Security Studies describes the Dark Web as “the hidden underbelly of the online world’s Deep Web”.

As this forum is unregulated, anyone can share information- anonymously. This is guaranteed through a so-called tor browser, which hides your IP address. The Dark web offers terrorists the access to resources such as firearms and forged documentation. On the other hand, the Dark Web is also used by all people, who try to escape mass surveillance, intelligence gathering by own governments or even political persecution. Human Rights defenders use the Dark Web to stay anonymous.


The balancing Act between privacy and security

The threat to national security and the extreme challenge for intelligence agencies lies in the fact, that ISIL followers are not required to travel to “the caliphate” to be trained and then return, although this happens as well. Using encrypted communication tools allow for anonymous safe communication, making travel unnecessary and therefore detection almost impossible, as governments do not have the overall technology to interfere.

With the NSA scandal in 2013, more and more people have become involved in the debate on privacy and how surveillance is manageable without invading the privacy rights of all citizens. Additionally, the demand for smartphone applications that ensure privacy through encrypted information has increased. This makes the access to such technology very easy for those, planning to abuse it. However, an option is to allow for authorities to receive special permission to access the information before it is encrypted in the system.

The main opposition to this idea of preventive intelligence is that it violates the right to privacy of the average citizen. Another question remaining is, whether it is really efficient to gather more and more data from different sources and each and every person if intelligence agencies decide to expand their investigations. Is it possible that intelligence is no longer looking for the needle in the haystack but focusing on the ever growing haystack of data when it comes to counter terrorism efforts?

As this debate evolves and the threat to national security of many European countries becomes imminent, governments will exercise a lot of political pressure for stricter surveillance and will seek all possible means to collect data of citizens.

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