Extremists are tech early adopters, counter-terror report notes

Extremist groups such as Al Qaeda are quickly adopting emerging technologies such as the Cloud, social media and P2P in their quest to spread mayhem, the authors of the government’s updated ‘Contest’ counter-terror strategy have reported.

Nowadays, Jihadist use of the Internet this goes well beyond the use of static websites to advertise their ideology, although this is still the most visible sign of their online presence, the report said.

In the last three years, terrorist groups have started using Google Earth and Street View to plan attacks such as those on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, backed up by predictable use of encryption to secure data and voice communications. Content is also being shared on ‘darknets’ – private encrypted networks – that are hard for the authorities to detect and disrupt.

Cloud computing is another worry, which offers radicals an always-on location for material to be stored in ways that are much harder to disrupt than conventional websites hosted on one provider, according to the report. As to social networks, the ability to organise using these channels was now obvious.

“Twitter will be used to repost media or forum articles enabling extremist content to be shared more quickly, widely and amongst people who would not normally search for extremist content.”

“Use of social networking sites and video sharing is now commonplace. There have been a number of attempts by terrorist and extremist groups to ‘invade’ Facebook,” the report concludes.

By contrast, Al Qaeda sympathisers had so far struggled to use malware to attack Western targets despite hopeful calls for ‘cyber Jihad’ by militant websites that claim to speak for the organisation. This remained a possible future threat although it was more likely that such activity would be freelance rather than organised.

The report also underlines the techniques police and intelligence services will use to counter these threats, including communications surveillance and the ability of prosecutors to use such evidence in court. The police will continue to monitor the movement of suspects as well as track money transfers made by them.

None of what the Government spells out in Contest is surprising and most of the legislative approaches have been well-trailed since Prime Minister David Cameron came to power in 2010.

What it underlines is the famous maxim of technology being a 'double-edged sword' that can work for one side, but also against it. That applies to the UK and its allies but also to their enemies. Technologies used to organise attacks can equally become gaping vulnerabilities if they are compromised.

The latest Contest report is the third revision of the Government's counter-terror strategy, launched in 2009.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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