Space & Innovation

ISIS Taps Dark Web, Encryption Apps to Coordinate

ISIS and other terrorists are able to communicate under the radar of Western intelligence agencies.

U.S. law enforcement officials say ISIS terrorists may have planned the Paris attacks with user-friendly encrypted messaging apps that have now become nearly impossible for police to crack.

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said this weekend that ISIS and other terrorists are able to communicate under the radar of Western intelligence agencies as a result. "I think this is going to open an entirely new debate about security versus privacy," Morell told CBS' Face the Nation.

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Jihadist groups have abandoned email and cellphones for secure systems created by big Western social media companies. Google, Facebook and Twitter have started using an encryption technique called "perfect forward secrecy" that creates a unique key for each encryption. It does not create a long-term master key, or "back door" that can be used to unlock them.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have been battling tech executives on this issue during hearings before Congress last summer and the Paris attacks are likely to fuel the debate about building communications systems that can't be opened by anyone.

The "The Onion Router," also known as Tor, is a network of servers originally developed by the U.S. government that allows users to browse the Web anonymously by sending traffic through multiple routers. It's part of the so-called Dark Web that's not indexed by search engines, and it's hard for investigators to penetrate.

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The groups communicate with followers through their online magazines. For years, al-Qaeda published "Inspire," which listed social media addresses where they could be reached. The ISIS version is called "The Beak," according to Stalinsky.

Extremist groups are even using messaging services found on Play Station 4 gaming consoles, a favorite of young male jihadis who particularly like "Call of Duty," according to Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute, a group that monitors social media by extremist groups.

"We know that foreign fighters and jihadis like to play video games," Stalinsky said. "They tweet pictures of themselves playing games, especially 'Call of Duty.' Wherever they find way to communicate, they will take advantage of it."

Of particular concern is Telegram, a relatively new instant messaging app designed in Russia that has recently been upgraded to allow more secure communications by groups. Stalinsky said his group has monitored a recent spike in references to Telegram accounts used by jihadi groups like ISIS in the past three months.

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"We have seen ample evidence that they are taking care to understand the best messaging apps are to communicate (and) that is more difficult for agencies to intercept," said Jamie Bartlett, author of the recent book "The Dark Net," and director of Center for Analysis of Social Media at Demos, a London-based think-tank.

"This sounds incredibly complicated, as if they are hacker-wizards. But most of it is fairly simple. The people who designed it, designed it not for terrorists, but for ordinary people."

Both Bartlett and Stalinsky say that the increasing demand for online privacy by law-abiding tech users to protect themselves from hackers, scammers or stalkers has also created an opening that is being exploited by terrorists.

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Terrorists "have been watchful of the debate we are having on encryption technology and how companies Apple, Google and others do not have a backdoor," Stalinsky said. "They definitely appreciate that and are watching it closely."

Demos' Bartlett says that old-fashion human intelligence, such as using paid informants, spies and tipsters inside the ISIS terror organization, may be the only way to crack the tech-savvy terror group.

"It's more expensive, very difficult and very slow," Bartlett said. "But it's probably what we have to do more of."

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