The era of the high tech terrorist

During the investigation of the recent Paris terrorist attack, one finding totally surprised the investigators. The analysis revealed that terrorists could have used Sony’s popular gaming console, PlayStation 4 to communicate. As the Playstation has options of sending messages and even voice chatting through a particular game, there is a distinct possibility that the ISIS terrorists could have used this medium to avoid detection. More so, as there are more than 100 million users on this network. Monitoring what millions of users are chatting becomes extremely difficult, especially if the terrorists use coded words or actions.

The investigation also revealed that the attackers used a social media app called Telegram, to communicate among themselves. Telegram messages are heavily encrypted and have the ability to self-destruct. A recent news report in CNN stated that increasingly terrorists were using Telegram to not only broadcast key messages, but also raise funds for their activities.

As technology has advanced, terrorists have also been quick to adapt. For example, a recent news report mentioned that terrorist organization, ISIS, has created a technology helpdesk for helping its recruits to better cover their tasks. The technology helpdesk offers 24 hour support on how to avoid surveillance, encrypt communications and hide personal details. Terrorist groups are also known to use social media actively for spreading their propaganda.

While every social media channel has blocked or closed down accounts that spread messages of hate, it is difficult to control or monitor each social media account or channel. One account closes down, and the other emerges.

Technology, hence is a boon and a bane. The same technology that has helped in making communication between individuals secure and private, is now being used by terrorists for nefarious activities. In the Mumbai terror attack, terrorists used a combination of GPS trackers, social media and anonymous email accounts, to plan their attack. Today, the cloud is being used by terrorists for storing content on the Internet rather than on personal computers. If this is encrypted, it makes it difficult for government agencies to decrypt this content.

In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, there is a vociferous debate on whether security agencies must be given access to encrypted networks, as terrorists too use the same encryption technology to cover their tracks. But, governments have been known to spy on innocent citizens. Hence, as with any technology or process, maintaining a fine balance between privacy and surveillance is key.

Every attack teaches important lessons, and as mankind learns and puts this intelligence into inventing new technologies, the next attack can be prevented, by quickly arresting the perpetrators of the crime.  For example, when bombs went off at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, police personnel quickly turned to the footage recorded by the CCTV cameras. Using latest advancements in video analytics technologies, the team could quickly identify the two suspects, which in earlier cases would have taken months.

While current terrorists are certainly adept in covering their tracks, the same technology can be used to thwart attacks. For example, a former head of Israel Security Agency’s IT unit has been quoted in the press stating that Big Data has helped in tracking down enemies of the state. Similarly, video analytics can also point out to suspicious behavior and can be used to auto track a suspicious person across multiple cameras. In another interesting development, scientists at the Georgia Tech Research Institute have developed a small electronic sensing device that can alert users wirelessly to the presence of chemicals such as ammonia or nitrogen oxide, that are known to be associated with explosives.

A firm called HiEnergy Technologies makes detectors that can determine in a small time frame of just 15 seconds to 3 minutes if an object contains explosives. A project in Sweden is experimenting with using a network of sensors in the sewer system to detect traces of bomb ingredients and tracing the location of home made explosives.  Placed at different places in the sewer system, the sensors can determine the location and the concentration of the ingredients of the bomb. The sensors can detect minute traces of the bomb ingredients, recording their concentration, the time they were found and their location.

While it would be certainly naive to suggest that technology alone can help in containing or preventing terrorist attacks, it can definitely provide a small ray of hope. While the solution definitely is a political one, effective usage of technology can certainly help in preventing or lessening the colossal damage that is caused by every terrorist attack.

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