Twittering to Terrorists

Ever since Ugh the Caveman, there's been an ongoing struggle: on the one hand, keep communications secret; on the other, crack the secrets of the other guy's communications.

This was true when "communication" was smoke signals and hand gestures, remained true when Julius Caesar popularized ciphers, and is still true today; we just have fancier methods. But I've been involved in intelligence and computer security stuff, off and on, for about thirty years, and if there's anything I've learned from it, it's that I can always expect fresh amusement from the popular press.

This weekend's amusement comes from a CNET article and Noah Shachtman's somewhat breathless article in Wired based on a posting on the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy News blog; that, in turn, is based on a paper, "Sample Overview: Al-Qaida-Like Mobile Discussions and Potential Creative Uses."  (You can find it currently at the FAS site; I'm not going to link it because it's marked "for official use only" and, dammit, I don't want to encourage them.)

In communications security and communications intelligence -- really two sides of the same coin -- we have a pair of problems.

The people on our side, technically called white hats, want to be able to communicate among themselves without letting the black hats on the other side know what they are saying; that's communications security. At the same time, they would like to know what the black hats are saying, and ideally without letting the black hats know we're listening. (If the black hats know we're listening, they are going to change the way they communicate; this is why "sources and methods" are so important, and why people like me get cranky about "for official use only" documents leaked to open web sites.)

The paper asks the question: what use could terrorists make of new technologies like Twitter and GPS cell phones? This kind of exercise, commonly called a red team, goes on all the time, often just as a thought exercise. The conclusion? Bad guys can use cell phones and Twitter too.

I know. Amazing, isn't it?