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Jihadists’ digital tools revealed

A report by dark web intelligence firm Flashpoint reveals how jihadist groups use common security and other tools to hide their digital communications from national security forces

Researchers have published a report that identifies the top 36 technologies that facilitate the online operations of radical jihadist groups.

To accomplish their goals, ranging from propaganda dissemination and recruitment to launching attacks, these groups use various digital technologies that are widely advertised and freely accessible online, according to the report by dark web data and intelligence company Flashpoint.

The security firm provides the tools, data, and expertise necessary to obtain tactical, operational and strategic intelligence from the dark web by identifying threat actors, relationships, behaviours and networks concealed within the hidden areas of the internet.

The Tech for Jihad report analyses the specific tools and mechanisms behind the online presence of jihadist groups such as ISIS to illuminate technology’s role in proliferating these actors’ radical agendas.

“To both gain popularity among potential supporters and instil fear in their adversaries, jihadists need consistent channels through which they can release propaganda, and technology is crucial for this,” said Laith Alkhouri, co-founder and director of Middle East/North Africa research at Flashpoint, and co-author of the report.

“Jihadists’ reliance on technology for survival is a proven, powerfully motivating force, pushing the community to constantly learn, adapt and advance through various technological tools,” he added.

Jihadists’ strategic use of social media has garnered significant attention over the past two years, but until now, relatively little has been known about the complex ways in which many of these groups maintain robust, yet secretive online presences.

Confidentiality and privacy are paramount to the survival of these groups, and with mainstream communication applications lacking the sophistication necessary to ensure sufficient security, jihadists are constantly forced to seek alternative methods of communication, the report said.

Flashpoint researchers have identified six categories of tools and tactics integral to jihadist operations.

First, the report said jihadists are increasingly turning to highly secure, alternative browsers, such as the Tor Browser, to operate online clandestinely without divulging identifying IP addresses and risking third-party surveillance.

Read more about Islamic State and technology

Virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy services such as CyberGhostVPN and F-Secure Freedome are also often used in conjunction with secure browsers to help jihadists further obfuscate their identities during online activities.

Because email surveillance remains a powerful tool for intelligence agencies to monitor actors, jihadists are turning to alternative email services equipped with popular security features such as end-to-end encryption and temporary, anonymous account capabilities.

Increasingly, jihadists are using specialised mobile apps to enhance security on smartphones as well as encrypted messaging services, with Telegram remaining the top choice.

Propaganda plays an integral role within the daily operations of radical jihadist groups, and as a result, researchers found that affiliated media units have released mobile apps to enable supporters to disseminate and view propaganda with greater ease, speed and accessibility.

“Today’s jihadists’ unrelenting drive to adopt technology that facilitates concealing their online operations reflects their strong need to implement stringent security measures in order to operate outside the view of law enforcement while preserving their voice to attract new recruits,” said Alex Kassirer, report co-author and senior analyst, counter-terrorism, Middle East/North Africa at Flashpoint.

“The better we understand the online tools and technology jihadists use to engage in nefarious activities, the better we can work to mitigate threats emanating from this global community,” he added.

Investigatory Powers Bill

The tactics described in the report pose a significant challenge to law enforcement and national security organisations around the world, and are a prime reason for the UK government’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords, just three stops away from becoming law.

The government is aiming to get the bill passed into law by the end of 2016, when the current laws governing the collection of data in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act is due to expire.

The bill was sponsored and championed by Theresa May as home secretary as being necessary to modernise the law to enable law enforcement and security organisations in the UK to keep the country and its citizens safe in the light of adversaries’ use of digital communications technology.

But some provisions of the bill have raised concerns among civil liberties groups, technology providers and politicians, including conservative MP David Davis and Labour’s Tom Watson, who challenged the legality of the government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa) 2014, which the Investigatory Powers Act is designed to replace.

However, Davis removed his name from the legal challenge still before the European Court of Justic (ECJ) soon after being appointed Brexit minister in the newly formed cabinet, raising concerns that the Investigatory Powers Bill may become law with less scrutiny and opposition now that Theresa May is prime minister.

Read more about the Investigatory Powers Bill

Davis and Watson took their complaint to the ECJ, the highest European court, after winning a challenge at the UK High Court in July 2015, but the ruling by the ECJ has been delayed.

The Danish advocate-general Claus Christian Gulmann – who is responsible for the case – will not issue his advice until 19 July 2016 and a full court ruling is not expected until several months later, by which time, the Investigatory Powers Bill – Dripa’s successor – could have become law.

Former first secretary of state and foreign secretary William Hague defended the controversial bill at Infosecurity Europe 2016 in London.

“If people could see the system of checks and balances already in place for accessing electronic communications, they would see how “ridiculous the idea of a ‘snoopers charter’ is,” he said.

Hague defended the UK’s intelligence services, saying that, while their successes are often never known, any failings instantly become headline news.

As foreign secretary, he said he saw the need for intelligence to frustrate organised crime, terrorism and foreign espionage on a daily basis.

“It’s a depressing fact that there are far more organisations and activities than the average citizen might suspect aimed at causing people in this country harm,” said Hague.

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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