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Terrorists Escape Detection Using Common Encryption Tools


As authorities in Europe search for suspects in the Brussels attacks and try to disrupt future attacks, they are hampered by technology. Apps that allow you to send encrypted text and voice messages have become the tools of the terrorist trade. For more on how the Islamic State is using this technology, we called on Michael Smith. He is co-founder of the security firm Kronos Advisory and has advised members of Congress on this topic. He says the programs most popular with ISIS are easy to use and highly effective.

MICHAEL SMITH: These are popular applications like Telegram Messenger, Threema, Kik, Surespot, and they can help to achieve a level of encryption, in text messaging in particular, that's very difficult for authorities to intercept in the first place and, secondly, to decrypt, unwind the message and ascertain what it is that's being conveyed.

SIEGEL: But you're not describing extremely sophisticated stuff that's being written specifically for the Islamic State or ISIS, but rather stuff that's off the shelf.

SMITH: That's correct. They want to ensure that there is ease of access. That's crucial for this organization. They are very rigorously involved in recruitment activities, incitement activities online. And what we're also seeing is that they are literally coordinating operations from inside the so-called caliphate in Europe and elsewhere in the West.

SIEGEL: What you're saying is that to be part of a network in a European city that's involved in plotting a few attacks doesn't require having an expert hacker among the group.

SMITH: That's correct, it does not. All of this technology is very user-friendly. It's very easy to find online. You can find it in app stores like Apple's and other places for Android devices.

SIEGEL: But even so, there has to be some level of coordination. There has to be some level of instruction. I mean - you know, the image of, there'll be a jihadi terror plot workshop on how to communicate with your cell phone comes to mind, but what happens? How are people trained? Where are they trained?

SMITH: They're being traded in places like Raqqa, where they're undergoing training that is overseen by Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who is typically referred to as the Islamic State's chief spokesperson, but he's also the manager of the group's external operations. So in addition to receiving training in the use of weaponry, training in tactics, training that entails strategic thinking about targets where particular guidance is not provided remotely to strike a certain target, the training also includes the uses of encryption software so that people can continue to coordinate things with their handlers. And that really plays into the larger theater of terrorism. It amplifies the fear factor when we realize that this group can communicate with people around the world in ways that intelligence services cannot quickly identify and ascertain what is contained in the correspondence.

SIEGEL: You've mentioned among the apps a Telegram Messenger. Do the makers of the app - do you know of how they've responded to the identification of their - their product with keeping terror plots secret?

SMITH: I think the creator of Telegram has certainly expressed that he obviously had no intention of his technology being utilized in this manner. The extent to which he has cooperated with authorities in terms of helping them to access actual correspondence, that I'm unaware of. But what we have seen is that Telegram has been especially effective in trying to disrupt things, like the uses of its channels feature. I think they've been much more aggressive than twitter has in terms of trying to block Islamic State content on their platform. But at the same time, all of that is tantamount to a game of whack-a-mole. You close an account, they open another account

SIEGEL: Mr. Smith, thanks for talking with us today about it.

SMITH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Michael Smith of Kronos Advisory. He monitors terrorists online. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.