Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2020

Terrorists may use encrypted tech to plan attacks

November 19, 2015

UNSPLASH.COM/CC0 Terrorists often use apps that encrypt messages to communicate with each other.

By CATIE PAUL Science & Technology Editor

The attacks in Paris on Friday have brought increased scrutiny to the technology industry as government officials and activists focus on the different forms of technology that terrorists may be using to communicate. Some activists are focusing on social media, which terrorists have long used to post propaganda and recruit new fighters. This scrutiny has increased in wake of the Paris attacks. This week the “hacktivist” group Anonymous claimed responsibility for disabling thousands of Twitter accounts that expressed support for Daesh, also known as ISIS. Another group called the Ghost Security Group is a volunteer organization that provides information about terrorists to the FBI and other agencies. Members of the group pose as terrorist recruits to infiltrate Dark Web operations run by Daesh and Daesh supporters. In addition, the group has had many Twitter accounts that support Daesh disabled. Michael S. Smith II, a Congressional terrorism advisor, is one of the point people who receives information from the Ghost Security Group. He acknowledges that the group has provided useful information to the government. For example the group alerted the government to a possible attack in Tunisia, which allowed an Daesh cell to be broken up. “More accounts are being taken down,” J.M. Berger, a Brookings Institution expert on Daesh, said to Reuters. “I do think the majority of the reporting is being done by groups like Anonymous and Ghost Security. But there are other initiatives, including the Counter Extremism Project and the Sawab Center, which are contributing to reporting efforts.” However, such activities may be less useful than civilians think. Although Anonymous took down several pro-Daesh Twitter accounts, its actions are still illegal and can complicate official operations by the government. In addition, the government can use terrorist activities on Twitter and other social media groups to monitor the activity of terrorist supporters. Terrorists often move to more encrypted apps on which they can’t be monitored as easily when they are pushed off of Twitter. Although they do not have proof that this is true, officials from the Obama administration are in fact claiming that Daesh militants may be using encrypted technology to talk to each other, Three such encryption apps are Signal, Wickr and Telegram — all of which encode text messages on cellphones. Daesh used Telegram to claim responsibility for both the Paris attacks and a plane crash in the Sinai peninsula two weeks ago. In addition to these apps, Apple provides the option to encrypt iMessages. Only the users, as opposed to the company, have the ability to decode the conversation. In the past the White House has pressured tech companies to turn over data to the government. The administration has also pressed for the keys to these encrypted conversations, which would allow them to decrypt these exchanges. A week ago it seemed to have given up on this goal. However, the Paris attacks have reopened the issue. Foreign countries, like France and Britain, have expressed concern over encrypted apps. David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, threatened to ban them last year, although he did not carry out his threat. The French government is threatening to press for access to the keys to this data. “We, in many respects, have gone blind as a result of the commercialization and the selling of these devices that cannot be accessed either by the manufacturer or, more importantly, by us in law enforcement, even equipped with search warrants and judicial authority,” William J. Bratton, the New York City police commissioner, said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. Meanwhile, Obama administration officials also said that some encrypted technology may be less secure than terrorists think in a statement that appeared aimed at keeping Daesh members guessing which ones the U.S. government has access to. The leader of Ghost Security Group, who declined to state his name in an interview with Reuters, has stated that his group is monitoring terrorist activity on Telegram. He said that the group is collecting information and passing it along to the government.

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