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Here’s How Terrorists Communicate Using Dark Web & Encryption Tech

The various methods and technologies that terrorists use to communicate are encrypted and difficult to track down.

Updated
Tech News
5 min read
Terrorists have been known to use various end-to-end encrypted apps to communicate with each other. 
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Technology can have its downsides. Especially, when it comes to the dark web and communications technology.

In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks in Pulwama, Kashmir, where the terrorists were reportedly found to be using YSMS tech to communicate, here’s a look at the different tools of communication various terrorist organisations have been found using to coordinate, strategise and inflict terror.

YSMS

The latest evil to have come to light in an array of tools the terrorists have used to communicate, the YSMS technology is the most basic yet most surreptitious tool. According, to a recent report in The Hindu, YSMS is communication via VHF (very high frequency) with the help of a smartphone. The report mentions that terrorists were using phones without SIMs and pairing them to radio sets to relay messages, SOS appeals and even the precise location to other paired devices using line-of-sight.

Since there isn’t a mobile network involved, it is difficult for intelligence agencies to intercept these communications and track them down.

This kind of technology was first used in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy after mobile towers were destroyed by the hurricane and this was the only form of communication.

Burner Phones & Customised Encryption Tools

Speaking to C-Span, Patrick Tucker, Technology Editor at Defense One, said that during the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, the terrorists may have used cheap disposable cellphones or more commonly known as “burner” smartphones and customised encryption tools to communicate among each other. Burner phones are use and throw devices, which are available for a very low cost and mostly come with limited validity.

Something similar to the phones actor Paresh Rawal (in the role of Ajit Doval, India’s security adviser to the PM) kept breaking in the movie Uri - The Surgical Strike.

Since burner phones do not have a contract with a service provider nor are there any record connecting the user to the phone number, it’s very difficult to track the source. You can also purchase the phone using cash so there is no digital transaction trail. Also, it’s a prepaid service.

Customised encryption tools have also been helping terrorists disguise their messages and other information. According to a report by Robert Graham titled: How Terrorists Use Encryption, it was seen that in the early 2007, terrorist organisation al-Qaida released an encryption tool of its own known as “Mujahedeen Secrets” and subsequently released an update to the tool in 2008 called Mujahideen Secrets 2.”

They also made a mobile app called Tashfeer al-Jawwal, and even an Android-based news app for “terrorist-related actions,” called Alemarah, according to Trend Micro.

Patrick from Defence One also went on to add that ISIS has a tech support centre in different regions which offers tech assistance. Anyone who is an ISIS supporter can call and ask for safer methods of communication and ways to hide their messages.

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Apps & Desktop Browsers

The presence of end-to-end encryption might ensure that nobody is snooping behind your back on your private messages, but it also gives a window of opportunity to certain malicious entities to make use to this to their advantage.

According to Robert Graham’s report, Telegram, which was one of the first messaging applications to support end-to-end encryption was one of the primary communication tools of the terrorists. These days the same encryption has been added to various messaging applications like WhatsApp and Wickr and this has made it even more difficult for intelligence agencies to track down culprits.

Different messaging apps being categorised by IS on the basis of security and encryption.
Different messaging apps being categorised by IS on the basis of security and encryption.
(Photo: The Wall Street Journal)

However, due to some belief among the various terrorist organisations that these so called “encrypted” apps might have a back-door which authorities can use to track them down a major chunk of the terrorist networks have stayed off the platforms. There’s still ambiguity around this.

Among these applications there have been studies by security firm Trend Micro which analysed thousands of alleged terrorist accounts and found that they were using Google’s Gmail (being the most widely used platform) followed by secure services like Mail2Tor, Sigaint and even Yahoo Mail!

When it comes to messaging, Trend Micro found Telegram as the most extensively used app in the terrorist network including Wickr and Signal. Surprisingly, there was also a small segment which was found to be using Facebook and WhatsApp.

On personal computers there are web-browsers like Tor (The Onion Router) . This specific browser gives people access to the dark web and it is very difficult to track the activity on that side of the internet as it passes traffic through multiple proxy servers around the internet controlled by different organisations, often private individuals.

This makes it sometimes difficult and at times even impossible to figure out the source of network traffic.

Even if the terrorists are using a default browser, there are multiple softwares online that automatically delete the browser history and most of the essential browsing information. One such app is “Windows Washer” which is also used to wipe the disks clean.

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Online Gaming Platforms

It might sound as a very unconventional platform for terrorists to chat on, but over the years online gaming portals have served as a breeding ground for harbouring conversations and information-sharing between terrorists.

In a statement by Sony to Forbes, the company responded saying that, PlayStation 4 like “all modern connected devices” enables communication and hence “has the potential to be abused.”

According to a report on online games providing shelter for criminals by Matthew S. Ruskin, most of the online games contain “capabilities like VoIP (voice over internet protocol), chat, and the ability to transfer files that allow real-time communications. Most of the traffic and online activity in these platforms aren’t tracked the same way as traditional traffic, which is why it can be easily exploited by anyone.

Examples of such communication techniques being used by terrorists have been seen in multiple TV and online shows like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, The Mentalist and even Netflix action series Bodyguard.

There is still not enough clarity as to how many methods terrorists use to communicate with each other barring the few above, which have been cited by many intelligence organisations around the world.

There has been constant surveillance and research to crack down on the different techniques terrorists use to communicate, but there are new methods that crop up every day.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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