As I See It: Revolving Door
December 7, 2015 Victor Rozek
Just when you think the excesses and oddities of the Internet can no longer surprise, along come reports of an online ISIS “help desk”–24/7 assistance for the budding jihadist. Well, it turns out the reports were inaccurate. It’s not a single point of contact, but a “decentralized, multi-platform recruit outreach,” according to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Regardless, trolling for expendable volunteers willing to detonate themselves for your cause certainly marks a departure from the ordinary array of bile-flavored hate sites.
Suicide bombers originate in many countries, and are subject to a variety of cultural influences. But if they have one thing in common it is that they are almost universally young. And, like many of today’s disenfranchised youth searching for a place to park their anger, they find their tribe online. Which is why the real battle–the one for hearts and minds–has migrated to the Internet. Sorry to say, it’s not going well: It’s easier, it seems, to align with people’s anguish than to talk them out of it.
ISIS’ masterful use of the Internet has not gone unnoticed. President Obama described ISIS as “a bunch of killers with good social media.” Unquestionably, their use of Facebook and YouTube has proved surprisingly effective at exploiting teenage angst. In chat rooms, interactions are customized to the language and gender of potential recruits. Recruiters exploit their sense of not belonging by inviting them to be part of a grand cause, using religious obligation and promises of eternal reward as inducements. Thousands have been recruited globally, and over 100 Americans have joined their number. Women lured to the Middle East, however, often discover that their grand contribution to establishing a caliphate is providing sex for its combatants.
There is a deadly irony in having 7th century ideology promulgated by 21st century technology. It’s as if the progress of the mind has been frozen in time, and only tools and weaponry have evolved. And it speaks to the unintended consequences of providing nearly universal access to amplifying and enabling technologies: With the speed of data transmission, regional conflicts can find global purchase. It’s as if the Internet has grown into a giant octopus with millions of tentacles that encircle the earth. Each of us feeds the beast and is in turn fed by it. And our diets can be easily manipulated to nourish both our preferences and our prejudices.
The Islamic State sponsors online forums and posts instructional guides on a variety of subjects from building bombs to maintaining secure communications through device manipulation and the use of advanced encryption methods. After the recent Paris attacks, there was widespread speculation that the government’s inability to prevent the carnage was a result of encrypted communications. As reported by Yahoo News, “officials have blamed the group’s adoption of sophisticated encryption software, such as the web browser Tor or the messaging app Telegram, for the inability to identify potential threats.”
When the metaphorical “Help Desk” stories broke, they included a reference to a 34-page instructional cybersecurity manual purportedly developed by ISIS. But although such a manual exists, the reports were mistaken as to its origins. Kate Knibbs, posting on GIZMODO, reveals that the original manual was the work of a Kuwaiti security firm Cyberkov, and was developed “as a tool for privacy-minded journalists in Gaza.”
While encryption may be challenging to crack, it’s not impossible. Spyware providers, including European-based Gamma International and Hacking Team, are quite willing to sell products capable of reading encrypted files to governments on both sides of the terrorist divide.
Gamma has been called “An Enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders. FinFisher, its advanced spyware, has repeatedly been discovered in countries who mistreat journalists, human rights activists, and political dissenters “like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.” It was probably used to help squash the Arab Spring in Egypt.
Using false software update notifications, security flaws, and malicious emails, Gamma installs Trojans that allow control of PCs or smartphones. An entire Internet café can even be infected allowing authorities to track “all possible users.” The spyware can listen in to voice over IP calls, record Skype chats, and read encrypted emails. It can turn on a computer’s microphone or webcam remotely. And once installed, the software can bypass common detection methods and is almost impossible to remove safely.
Finfisher has also been found to be active in Australia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Latvia, Mongolia, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, Brunei, and the United States. There is reportedly “one copy in Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Communications, two in Singapore, one in the Netherlands.”
The Hacking Team’s software boasts an equally charming array of capabilities: keystroke logging; covert collection of emails, text messages, phone call history, address books, search history, and audio recording of phone calls to name a few. To bypass cryptography and capture audio and video streams from Skype, the software accesses device memory. It can use your computer’s microphone to record background conversations, and hijack the smartphone’s GPS systems to monitor a target’s location. It can infect a target computer’s UEFI BIOS firmware. It can extract WiFi passwords. And if that’s not enough, it can mess with your “Bitcoin wallet files and collect data on your accounts, your contacts, and your transaction history.”
Spyware creates a revolving door of customers. The products are sold to repressive regimes which use them to further tyrannize their citizenry some portion of which eventually become radicalized. That, in turn, justifies greater monitoring and sharper repression, which spawns greater backlash, and so forth. For democracies, the use of surveillance software puts increased strain on the fraying line between privacy and public safety.
Spy vs. Spy is a wordless comic strip published in Mad Magazine. It features two completely identical espionage agents battling each other, except one is dressed all in white and the other in black. It speaks to the ultimate futility of conflict, and back when I was reading Mad, spies weren’t armed with technology so powerful it could magnify the problems it’s designed to solve.
A video recently made the rounds on the Internet that perfectly captured the hopeless complexity of the shifting Middle Eastern landscape: It showed American-trained fighters, using an American weapon, to destroy an American Humvee.
If you conclude that nobody has any idea of what the hell they’re doing, except the people making money on the world’s carnage, you’re probably right.
The dilemma of computer technology is that it can amplify our knowledge, but it can also turn confusion into chaos, surveillance into oppression, and young people into suicide bombers. And for that there is no easy fix.