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?
"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.