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The most open and democratic form of communication ever invented and...

According to the New York Times:  George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, speaking on the vulnerabilities of the nation's computer networks at a technology security conference on Dec. 1, noted the ability of terrorists to "work anonymously and remotely to inflict enormous damage at little cost or risk to themselves." He called for a wholesale taming of cyberspace.

Let's see... the internet, 1,000,000,000,000 honest users and 3 terrorists users.  I wonder who has the most to lose?  


The indictment early this month of Mark Robert Walker by a federal grand jury in Texas might have seemed a coup for the government in its efforts to police terrorist communications online. Mr. Walker, a 19-year-old student, is accused, among other things, of using his roommate's computer to communicate with - and offer aid to - a federally designated terrorist group in Somalia and with helping to run a jihadist Web site.

"I hate the U.S. government," is among the statements Mr. Walker is said to have posted online. "I wish I could have been flying one of the planes on Sept. 11."
By international terror standards, it was an extremely low-level bust. But the case, which was supposedly broken only after Mr. Walker's roommate tipped off the police, highlights the near impossibility of tracking terrorist communications online.

Even George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, speaking on the vulnerabilities of the nation's computer networks at a technology security conference on Dec. 1, noted the ability of terrorists to "work anonymously and remotely to inflict enormous damage at little cost or risk to themselves." He called for a wholesale taming of cyberspace.
"I know that these actions would be controversial in this age where we still think the Internet is a free and open society with no control or accountability," Mr. Tenet said, "But, ultimately, the Wild West must give way to governance and control."

Even if the government is able to shore up its networks against attack - one of many goals set forth by the intelligence reform bill passed last week - the ability of terrorists and other dark elements to engage in covert communications online remains a daunting security problem, and one that may prove impossible to solve.
Late last month, an Internet privacy watchdog group revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency had contributed money for a counterterrorism project that promised, among other things, an automated surveillance system to monitor conversations on Internet chat rooms. Developed by two computer scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., as part of a National Science Foundation program called Approaches to Combat Terrorism, the chat room project takes aim at the possibility that terrorists could communicate through crowded public chat channels, where the flurry of disconnected, scrolling messages makes it difficult to know who is talking to whom. The automated software would monitor both the content and timing of messages to help isolate and identify conversations.

Putting privacy concerns aside, some Internet specialists wonder whether such projects, even if successful, fail to acknowledge the myriad other ways terrorists can plot and communicate online. From free e-mail accounts and unsecured wireless networks to online programs that can shield Internet addresses and hide data, the opportunities to communicate covertly are utterly available and seemingly endless.

Even after the Sept. 11 attacks, "the mass media, policy makers, and even security agencies have tended to focus on the exaggerated threat of cyberterrorism and paid insufficient attention to the more routine uses made of the Internet," Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel, wrote in a report for the United States Institute of Peace this year. "Those uses are numerous and, from the terrorists' perspective, invaluable."

Todd M. Hinnen, a trial attorney with the United States Justice Department's computer crime division, wrote an article on terrorists' use of the Internet for Columbia Science and Technology Law Review earlier this year. "There's no panacea," Mr. Hinnen said in an interview. "There has always been the possibility of meeting in dark alleys, and that was hard for law enforcement to detect."

Now, every computer terminal with an Internet connection has the potential to become a dark alley.

Shortly after Sept. 11, questions swirled around steganography, the age-old technique of hiding one piece of information within another. A digital image of a sailboat, for instance, might also invisibly hold a communiqué, a map or some other hidden data. A digital song file might contain blueprints for a desired target.

But the troubling truth is that terrorists rarely have to be technically savvy to cloak their conversations. Even simple, prearranged code words can do the job when the authorities do not know whose e-mail to monitor or which Web sites to watch. Interviews conducted by Al Jazeera, the Arab television network, with the terror suspects Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh two years ago (both have since been arrested), suggested that the Sept. 11 attackers communicated openly using prearranged code words. The "faculty of urban planning," for instance, referred to the World Trade Center. The Pentagon was the "faculty of fine arts."

Other reports have suggested that Mohammed Atta, suspected of being the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, transmitted a final cryptic message to his co-conspirators over the Internet: "The semester begins in three more weeks. We've obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts, and the faculty of engineering."

And increasingly, new tools used to hide messages can quickly be found with a simple Web search. Dozens of free or inexpensive steganography programs are available for download. And there is ample evidence that terrorists have made use of encryption technologies, which are difficult to break. The arrest in Pakistan in July of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, thought to be an Al Qaeda communications specialist, for instance, yielded a trove of ciphered messages from his computers.

Originally posted to agincour on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 03:47 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  we will also have to install (none)
    microphones in every pillow.  All bedrooms will be subject to FBI raid unless the beds are equipped with approved pillows that have microphones installed.

    After all, them terra-ists are probably all also homosexuals, and between their deviant sex acts they are WHISPERING IN EACH OTHERS EARS to plot their evil plans!  Yes, ever since they developed this new "whispering" technology and those dens of conspiracy called "bedrooms", it hasn't been enough to just monitor the internets.  ALL PRIVATE COMMUNICATIONS EVERYWHERE MUST BE BUSTED UP BY OUR GOD-FEARIN' AGENTS OF THE LAW!

    Believe the truth: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength!

  •  Their have always been codes and codebreakers. (none)
    We however, have been slacking as a country, not bothering to keep our talent sharp, with the lack of Arabic speakers, cryptographers, we should invest in more programs for foreign language students, and we need to shift computer programmers toward code-breaking.  There is no reason the threat of terror, or an ongoing threat, should result in a loss of free communication, or civil liberties for any Americans.  
    •  Codebreaking is over (none)
      While the many tales of codebreaking through history (including WW2) are inspirational and exciting to those of us interested in codes, with the advent of computers, codes have become unbreakable.  The multi-century contest between codemakers and codebreakers has been won by the codemakers and that is not likely to change again.  This is a good thing, since secure codes are the best way for normal folks to communicate privately against the efforts of a GOP government trying to turn the US into a police state.  Yes, it means bad guys can also communicate privately with relative ease, but otherwise they could have still communicated privately with somewhat more difficulty, which they would continue doing but which would be too much nuisance for ordinary people.

      For more info, see "The Code Book" by Simon Singh.

      •  Maybe (none)
        With current technological development levels yes.  For now, the so-called "quantum computer" is a science-fictional idea, but were something of that sort to be developedthe nearly infinite parallel-processing capability would put the codebreakers back ointo play.  History suggests it is exactly military/security issues that have taken purely theoretical science and turned it into operational technology in astoundingly short order time after time--nuclear energy, anyone?
        •  misconception (none)
          If quantum computing is physically realizeable at all, which is by no means certain, it still doesn't lead to codebreaking.  It just speeds things up, but not by enough to make codes insecure.  Basically if a normal computer needs N steps to break a code, a quantum computer can do it in square-root-of-N steps.  So if your code parameters are chosen to need a million years to break on a normal computer, the quantum computer can break it in a thousand years, but no faster than that (ok, it's a bit more complicated, but you get the idea).

          The thing is, if that's a concern, just choose your parameters to need a trillion years instead of a million years.  It doesn't make the code a million times slower to use normally; it just makes it slower by an additive constant.  It's like a six-digit salary is ten times as large as a five-digit salary, but needs only one more digit to write down.  A trillion year cipher is a million times harder to break than a million year cipher, but is only six more "digits" for your computer to think about (i.e. each "digit" represents a certain constant amount of work).

          Singh's book explains all this.

          Mainly though, all that stuff about quantum computers and theory breakthroughs, at present, is science fiction.  Saying we should get computer programmers working on them is like saying we should get car mechanics working on building Star Trek transporters.  There's no concrete place for them to even start such work.

  •  I should add that (none)
    there's a specific type of code (the famous RSA cipher, based on multiplying large prime numbers) that quantum computing does potentially completely break, and that discovery got a lot of publicity, and may be what Schmidt et al had gotten so excited about.  That is to say, QC (in theory, since it only exists in theory) does much better than square-root-of-N for RSA specifically and maybe for all ciphers with the particular attractive characteristic that RSA has, but not for ciphers in general.   That characteristic ("public key") is basically that you and I can exchange secure traffic without having to meet in advance to agree secretly on an encryption key (e.g. a password).  That means complete strangers can talk to each other without worrying about anyone listening in.

    Having to do without public-key makes secure communications less convenient, but it's not all that big a deal.  Complete strangers usually won't talk to each other about stuff that's really secret.  If they have something really secret to talk about, they should first know each other well enough to set up a shared secret key.  

    Public-key ciphers were first published in the 1970's but were not widely used until the late 90's, when computers became fast enough to run them easily and a bunch of patents expired that had kept the stuff tangled up with lawyers.  Prior to widespread use of public key, military and financial organizations developed perfectly workable (if slightly clumsy by comparison) schemes for distributing and managing secret keys across wide networks, and those techniques are well known now.  So we did without public-key before and we can do without it again if we have to.

    [If you haven't figured it out, I am a crypto junkie :).]

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