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Evolving anti-terrorist technology, Part I

How the dark web has been used both for legal and illegal messaging/transactions.

The big picture—updated

Intense analysis continues as developments in France continue to unfold. Among the facts that are most important for all of us to understand—

  • First, youth attracted to violent extremism are often alienated, socially marginal and, in many cases, have criminal records preceding their recruitment. In fact, they typically are not devout, but religiously illiterate and drawn to ISIS and similar groups because they seductively offer social acceptance and a means for venting their wrath.
  • Second, the vast majority of Muslims are completely repelled by ISIS—though, understandably, those living within reach of that and other terrorist organizations keep a low profile, just as people living in gang-dominated urban neighborhoods in the U.S. keep a low profile.
  • Third, such groups are inspired by an apocalyptic vision of ‘End Days’ and fervently believe they are God’s agents in helping catalyze ‘a war to end all wars.’ This explains why the number one objective of ISIS is to incite the U.S. to engage them in a ground war in Iraq and Syria.
  • Fifth, unfortunately, apocalyptic beliefs also inspire some fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S. who are among those most eager to engage ISIS on the ground in the Middle East. Together, these two antagonists increase the potential for an unthinkable self-fulfilling prophecy.

A growing security debate over encryption messaging platforms

The big break in quelling the planned-for second wave of terrorist attacks in Paris on Tuesday resulted from authorities accessing the content of the cell phones of dead perpetrators. Their messages to one another had been encrypted, but once received, were accessible to anyone with their devices in hand.

Should Apple, Google, Firefox and major Internet players create ‘back doors,’ making it easier for law enforcement to read encrypted messages in transmission? I’ve posted Insights articles before about how the Dark Web has been used both for legal and illegal messaging/transactions. Recent legislation in the U.S. requires additional oversight from courts in monitoring Internet /phone communications. —Some now argue for reversing those restrictions and also making the Dark Web transparent to security agencies via ‘back door’ access.

Encryption

To date, most encryption services are protected against government surveillance

Authorities already can unencrypt messages sent on some ‘dark’ platforms. Understandably, they prefer to keep terrorist organizations guessing as to which among them remain ‘safe’ for their nefarious purposes. Among the favorites of terrorist and other criminal organizations are WhatsApp, Signal, iMessage, Wickr and Telegram. Telegram, by the way, is among those that are foreign-based (German) and as such is likely to remain outside the reach of the US DHS in the future—especially given the German government’s aversion to N.S.A. surveillance.

Apple’s encryption iMessage service is the most prominent among those that are U.S. based. The President is on record as being opposed to challenging Apple or other U.S.-based encryption services.

Why has he taken this position?

  • If that data couldn’t be encrypted, it would render critical infrastructure and other data vulnerable to criminals and enemy governments. And, it would simply result in terrorists switching to foreign-based encryption services like Telegram.

  • Most importantly, WHEN likely perpetrators are known, then a record of their phone calls, their length and to whom they are made can be monitored, if not their content. This remains the most viable strategy for preventing future attacks. However, European governments need to invest much more in monitoring technology to leverage this opportunity.

In the second in this Insights series, I’ll describe other anti-terrorist technologies that will come into play in the not-too-distant future.

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