Rise of encryption tests intelligence in Isis fight

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One challenge above all stands out for western counter-terrorism agencies fighting Isis: the rise of encryption technology across modern communications.

The jihadis are more than aware of the fact.

Investigators will be focusing on the nature of communications between the eight terrorists behind the deaths of 129 people in Paris on Friday, and their covert planning and logistics support network.

But with a cell of such size, involving co-ordination across several countries, what has come to the fore is the question of whether encrypted apps on their smartphones or secure email on computers obscured the intelligence picture before the massacre.

“There has been a significant increase in the operational security of a number of these operatives and terrorist networks as they have gone to school on what it is that they need to do in order to keep their activities concealed from the authorities,” John Brennan, CIA director, said in Washington at the CSIS think-tank on Monday.

Encryption affects counter-terrorism work on two levels. First, the increasingly off-the-shelf availability of apps and platforms that have high levels of security, particularly those with end-to-end encryption, offers terrorists increasing levels of secrecy.

But second, the spread of less rigorous encryption across a broader range of everyday web and smartphone software, from email to social media platforms, also means that even those with inferior standards are harder to monitor.

Agencies are therefore not just “going dark”, as they refer to their information shortfall, on the activities of specific, high-value targets, but on the broad amount of “chatter” they depend on for the core of their counter-terrorism analysis. Chatter is so crucial because it is what produces the leads for deeper investigations. In an age in which Isis is creating a far more diffuse terror threat, radicalising thousands of young, would-be jihadis through social media, such leads are vital.

“We are trying to pick signals out of the noise,” says a senior official at the Five Eyes signals intelligence alliance that combines the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “But what encryption is doing is vastly increasing that noise.”

The speed of technological development makes trying to keep up an almost impossible task.

“Almost every new app, whether it’s for file-sharing or sending photos that disintegrate or playing at orcs and dragons these days has some level of communication in it. We have to keep on top of them all,” says the official. “It’s around 1m.”

Isis, for its part, has what one British security source describes as a “highly sophisticated” digital security operation to make the task of signals intelligence work against it as hard as possible.

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The rise of encryption technology poses an increasing challenge for counter-terrorism agencies fighting Isis. Ravi Mattu asks Sam Jones, FT defence and security editor, why intelligence chiefs are so worried.

Isis adapts constantly, he says. Two years ago, its mujahideen were frequent users of messaging services such as Kik and Vibr. Their presence on social media services such as Twitter was particularly noteworthy.

But the opening of Washington’s bombing campaign against the group marked a turning point in which Isis moved to close its digital blackout blinds. The so-called caliphate clamped down on its fighters’ activities and apps. Orders were issued to fighting units on how to scrub tell-tale metadata from pictures and social media output online. And guides quickly circulated on which smartphone apps were the hardest to crack.

The jihadis turned initially to sites such as Russia’s VKontakte and Diaspora or anonymous text-sharing websites such as JustPaste.it and Pastebin.

Isis now favours Telegram, a messaging app that advertises its services as “heavily encrypted” with the bonus of a self-destruct feature. For Isis, the app has another crucial benefit. Users can sign up to secure “channels” that broadcast messages.

The militant group has several channels established. The largest was identified by Memri, a Middle East media think-tank, in a report last month. Nashir, Isis’s flagship channel on Telegram, broadcasts in numerous languages: it has more than 10,000 Arabic followers, 998 in English, 348 in French and 340 in German.

Telegram said on Wednesday it had blocked 78 Isis-related channels across 12 languages, identified because of users reporting them to its abuse email. The start-up has responded to requests to remove content such as porn, in countries where it is illegal, but it has also pledged not to block those who express their opinions peacefully.

“It’s a game of catch-up,” says Callum Jeffray, national security research fellow at the Rusi think-tank. “As soon as intelligence agencies find a means of accessing one platform, more spring up. There is this adaptive and learning element of Isis that means this whole debate over encryption and data are going to play out for years to come.”

Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in San Francisco


Henry Sapiecha

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