Posted on Thursday, June 11, 2015 at 8:29 AM
For several months, Islamic State militants have been using instant messaging apps which encrypt or destroy conversations immediately. This has inhibit U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies from identifying and monitoring suspected terrorists, even when a court order is granted, because messaging companies and app developers say they are unable to unlock the coded conversations and/or do not have a record of the conversations. “We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael B. Steinbach, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official. “We are dark.”
For several months, Islamic State militants have been using instant messaging apps which encrypt or destroy conversations immediately. This has inhibit U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies from identifying and monitoring suspected terrorists, even when a court order is granted, because messaging companies and app developers say they are unable to unlock the coded conversations and/or do not have a record of the conversations.
“We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael B. Steinbach, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official. “We are dark.”
FBI officials want Congress to expand their authority to monitor apps such as WhatsApp and Kik, as well as data-deleting apps such as Wickr and Surespot, used by hundreds of millions of people, including terrorists and their supporters, because they guarantee security and anonymity.
About 200,000 people worldwide are exposed to “terrorist messaging” daily from ISIS supporters via direct messaging, online videos, or social media posts. ISIS recruiters also monitor Twitter and Facebook to connect with individuals who share the group’s posts, often inviting them to private conversations over encrypted or data-deleting apps.
FBI officials fear that law enforcement agencies are missing important clues about potential plots as terror-linked conversations go from social media to private messaging apps. The FBI has arrested nearly forty people since last summer on the suspicion of seeking to support terrorist groups. A vast majority of those people communicated their intentions through social media. Last Tuesday, an FBI agent and a Boston police officer shot and killed a 26-year old former security guard in Roslindale, Massachusetts after he allegedly lunged at them with a knife. The FBI had been tracking his social media communications with ISIS for at least several days.
ISIS and its supporters are now increasingly communicating via secure and encrypted messaging platforms. “These tactics are a sea change for spreading terror, and they require from us a paradigm shift in our counter-terrorism, intelligence and our operations,” Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said last Wednesday at a congressional hearing.
The Los Angeles Times reports that FBI officials have not disclosed details of cases in which private messaging apps have been used by terrorists, but they have appealed to tech and software companies to work with law enforcement to monitor suspected terrorist communications.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook in a 1 June speech at the annual awards dinner for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, defended his company’s decision to encrypt the content of Facetime and iMessage communications. He lashed out at government officials who have asked Apple and other tech firms to create a backdoor key to encrypted messages. “Let me be crystal clear,” Cook said. “Weakening encryption or taking it away harms good people that are using it for the right reasons. And ultimately, I believe it has a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights and undermines our country’s founding principles.”
At last Wednesday’s congressional hearing, Steinbach said that the FBI seeks a legal way to access stored text messages and active communications in suspected terrorism cases. “We’re talking about going before the court, whether the criminal court or the national security court, with evidence, a burden of proof, probable cause, suggesting a crime has been committed or, in our case, that there’s a terrorist,” he said.
“We’re not looking at going through a backdoor or being nefarious,” he said.
“We are imploring Congress to help us seek legal remedies toward that as well as asking the companies to provide technological solutions to help that,” Steinbach said. Public demand for e-mail and text messaging services which guarantee security and anonymity has risen since Edward Snowden leaked details about the NSA’s bulk data collection program. Still, federal officials want tech companies to know the risk associated with their services. “It is important for those who are providing the services to understand what the threats are and to be responsible … in terms of taking action to prevent designated terrorist groups from using their services to try to get people to commit terrorist acts here,” John Carlin, head of national security for the Justice Department, said in a recent interview.
While ISIS seems to have successfully mastered how to use social media to recruit new followers, the medium has its weaknesses. Air Force analysts at Hurlburt Field, Florida recently helped destroy a command center in Syria after a militant revealed enough information online to disclose his position. “The (airmen are) combing through social media and they see some moron standing at this command,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, said in a speech on 1 June, according to Air Force Times. “And in some social media, open forum, bragging about command and control capabilities for (ISIS). And these guys go, ‘Ah, we got an in.’”
“So they do some work. Long story short, about 22 hours later through that very building, three (‘smart’ bombs) take that entire building out. Through social media. It was a post on social media. Bombs on target in 22 hours,” he said. “It was incredible work, and incredible airmen doing this sort of thing.”
ISIS, however, has been aware of the vulnerabilities of social media. Last fall, the group’s leaders issued an order forbidding fighters to photograph attacks and locations without permission from the group’s general council. The Times notes that ISIS also distributed a guide to removing geo-location and metadata from cell phone images.
Homeland Security News Wire, June 10, 2015