Terrorists Are Also Expert and Ingenious Users of Communications Technology

By EFF-Graphics (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By EFF-Graphics (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Nobody said technology is exclusively used for good purposes. Its malevolent applications abound. Just recently, the sinister use of technology was disastrously demonstrated in the terror attacks in Paris that left more than a hundred people dead.

This evil application of technology was in the form of terrorists being able to operate under the radar using encrypted and disguised communication. Senior European intelligence officials, in an interview with NBC News, said that France’s anti-terrorism capability has clearly been challenged by the enhanced ability of terrorists to conduct covert communications, planning, and operations. ISIS is believed to have a team of jihadi cyber experts responsible for training terrorists in avoiding the monitoring of authorities.

How Terrorists Secretly Communicate

There have been many speculated ways through which terrorists communicate. In general, these ways are referred to as the “dark web” or the encrypted space of the Internet that most people are not aware of. According to Kristopher Willis of the University of South Florida’s Florida Center for CyberSecurity, the dark or invisible Internet is something most users of social media and email are not familiar with but it has been increasingly used by ISIS and other terrorists for recruitment and communication process. ISIS and al Qaeda have something referred to as mujahedeen secrets, which according to Willis, are an encryption tool.

The dark web is also a lair for pedophiles, hit men, and other felonious personalities who stay in the shadows to plot, coordinate, and undertake their criminal intentions. Information exchanged in the dark web are limited to just a few servers. Only the intended recipients are able to access the information or communicate and everything is protected by a logarithmic key to prevent non-parties from peeking into or accessing the information. Moreover, the messages exchanged over the dark web or at least on the networks used by terrorists are quickly destroyed to avoid leaving evidences.

PlayStation 4 May Have Been Used

Ironically, Sony is being dragged into the Paris terror attack issue not because of a security flaw but because its encrypted communication network may have facilitated the plotting of the Paris terror attack. Experts are saying that there’s a possibility that the PS4 network has become a means for communication for terrorists. Belgium’s Interior Minister Jan Jambon is saying that the popular gaming console may have been used by the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks. Jambon says that it is very difficult for authorities to decrypt communication passing along the PlayStation 4 network.

iboss Cybersecurity CEO Paul Martini, on the other hand, is saying “that there is no doubt that terrorists and underground networks are using PlayStation and other nontraditional means to communicate with each other.” Martini notes that the protocols and languages employed by the PS4 network are vastly different from the ones used by common messaging applications and Internet browsers.

Image credit: Evan-Amos, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Evan-Amos, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Interception Possible but Reading Information Is Extremely Difficult

Thanks to continuously advancing encryption technologies, people enjoy privacy over the Internet. And so do terrorists and entities with criminal intentions. While it is relatively easy to capture the packets of information being exchanged online, it’s in the reading of these information that the challenge increases exponentially. During a US congressional committee hearing on the subject of encrypted communications, Michael Steinbach, Assistant FBI Director, said that they don’t have the tools and solutions to view the content of encrypted transmissions.

Experts Oppose Government Access to Encrypted Information

The FBI has been asking Congress to pass a law that will expand the agency’s authority in monitoring anonymity-enabling messaging apps like Surespot, Kik, Whatsapp, and Wickr. The move, however, is being sternly opposed by powerful personalities from the tech world including the CEP of Apple Tim Cook. Similarly, security experts express opposition to the US and UK Governments’ plans of accessing encrypted communication. Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have released a paper stating their stand on the issue. One of the signatories of this paper is public key cryptography pioneer Whitfield Diffie and Ronald L. Rivest, whose surname’s first letter is the “R” in the RSA public cryptography algorithm. The experts argue that giving the government access to encrypted data is technically unviable as it would lead to serious risks for confidential information and critical infrastructure like the ones used by banks and power grids. As decades of histories would bear out, governments are not exactly the paragon of trust and security. Giving governments access to critical confidential data can be a good starting point for terrorists and criminals to have easier access to such critical data.

Photo: Harland Quarrington/MOD [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Harland Quarrington/MOD [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

As security experts say that there are more harm than good in allowing governments to decode encrypted messages or information, the world is now in a dilemma of what to do to prevent another Paris terror attack from happening. Of course, governments and those who advocate encryption access also have their arguments. It’s difficult to precisely say which  sides makes the more compelling points. For now, what is clear is that the ISIS and other terrorist organizations are completely stopped and apprehended for the crimes they committed.