Terrorists' Web Chatter Shows Concern About Internet Privacy
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Terrorist groups, which for years have used the Internet and its various tools to organize and communicate, are paying more attention to addressing security and privacy concerns similar to those of other Web users, counterterrorism experts say.
The Internet has long been a convenient gathering place for radical Islamists advocating violence against Western influences, known as jihadists. Through online chat, e-mail and Web postings, communities of people have relied on one another for advice, political debate, even movie reviews and biographical information on suicide bombers and religious leaders.
Recently, postings on jihadist Web sites have expressed increasing concern about spyware, password protection, and surveillance on chat rooms and instant-messaging systems.
One forum recently posted a guide for Internet safety and anonymity on the Internet, advising readers of ways to circumvent hackers or government officials.
"The Shortened Way of How to be Cautious; To the User of the Jihadi Forums, In the Name of Allah, the most Gracious and Merciful" was posted last month by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group calling itself the Global Islamic Media Front and was translated by the SITE Institute, a group that tracks international terrorist groups.
The posting advised Internet cafe users to set up a proxy -- a software program that erases digital footsteps such as Web addresses or other identifiable information -- before Web surfing. "I advise you to carry this program in your e-mail and it should be with you anywhere you are," it said.
"There's a lot of things like that," said Evan Kohlmann, a consultant on international terrorism. Last month, Kohlmann said, he found a jihadist Web site posting pirated McAfee anti-spyware software, which the site encouraged users to download to avoid monitoring. "Technology is as much a part of their lives as it is part of our lives."
Google Inc. and its growing arsenal of powerful software tools, for example, are both a boon and a bane for terrorist technologists who are increasingly wary that the programs might be turned against them to gather information about their activities. One of the jihadist Web sites cautioned its readers to "Beware of Google!!!" with specific warnings about its relatively new product Google Toolbar. The posting cited another technology blog that said the tool could be configured to operate like spyware, finding data on computers remotely.
In recent months, Google Video has also become a favorite tool among jihadist groups for uploading and accessing videos, said Rita Katz, director and co-founder of the District-based SITE Institute.
Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. declined to comment on their policies. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the nonprofit research group Rand Corp., said that such postings indicate that electronic communication is still popular among terrorists but that they must constantly keep up with ways to avoid leaving electronic tracks.
"This kind of tradecraft is essential to survival," Hoffman said. They know the authorities are using wiretaps and monitoring satellite phones, so they are constantly trying to come up with ways to go around it, he said. When terrorist groups learned that the National Security Agency could track electronic communication only when it was in transit -- not when it was sitting in an inbox -- users started drafting messages in free e-mail accounts, then allowing others to log in to the accounts and read the drafts. No message ever had to be sent. "I would be surprised if this kind of electronic communication is diminished," Hoffman said. "They are just going to greater efforts to obfuscate it. They are hoping that with the volume of e-mail traffic, if they take the appropriate precautions, they can [communicate] undetected."