The War Against ISIS Online – Is Your Security At Risk?

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ISIS; IS; ISIL; Daesh: it doesn’t matter what you call the extremist group — thanks to a campaign of terror, the press has been forced to give considerable coverage to their attacks. It might be why so many of us are complacent about our own privacy.

But the hacktivists, Anonymous, claim to have started to target ISIS sites already, and thereby alerted many that the terrorists aren’t solely an on-the-ground group; they have an online presence. Why? How are they being fought? And will you be affected?

How Is ISIS Using The Internet?

Egypt Uprising solidarity protest Melbourne 4 Feb 2011

There’s a lot of confusion over what ISIS’ aims actually are. Despite claiming to represent the “Islamic State,” repeated efforts have been made to separate the actions of these jihadists from the peaceful religion. “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” President Barack Obama has affirmed. “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

That’s exactly how they come across, but as their propaganda is eager to point out, it’s all their interpretation of “the Prophetic methodology.” All major religions have their extremists. And this is what ISIS primarily use the Internet for: inciting fear and hatred, and to further indoctrinate. It is, after all, the ideal method of mass dissemination.

When, for instance, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, called for followers to find disbelievers and “smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife,” it was reported from every major news outlet.

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Notably, social media has played a part in distributing ideology, surrounding impressionable youths in particular with a wealth of propaganda, and luring an estimated 3,400 Westerners to Syria and Iraq. White House Communications Director, Jen Psaki admitted that the US State Department have to combat around 90,000 associated tweets a day.

Certainly Twitter is a big concern when it comes to promoting terrorist agendas; while Facebook actively takes down any sympathizing posts and pages, the Brookings Institute found that between September and December 2014, “at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time” – before clarifying that figure is a conservative estimate.

Twitter, however, is taking further action, and their policies state that “Users may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.” Nonetheless, part of the trouble is defining what constitutes as propaganda from just expressing political/religious views. Offensive material, of course, vanishes, but extremists do take advantage of the network’s belief in freedom of expression.

How Anonymous Is Fighting Back

Most famously, Anonymous have declared war on ISIS. If you’re unfamiliar with the hackers, former Anonymous member, Hector Monsegur explains, “We could all work together as a crowd — united. We could rise and fight against oppression. It was amazing. I saw finally I was able to do something that contributed to society.”

Their focus on ISIS came to the fore after 2015’s tragic attacks in Paris, both in January when the offices of Charle Hebdo were targeted, and more recently when terrorists hit seven locations including the Bataclan concert hall.

In the week following the November shootings, Anonymous claims to have taken down 25,000 ISIS Twitter accounts, and more than 2,500 affiliated websites, including recruitment pages. The aim right now is identifying and shutting down any online face of the extremists in order to restrict their publicity and channels to indoctrinate.

“[Anonymous are] just trying to shut down their ability to talk to the public. I think it’s had a decent effect,” Gregg Housh, a prominent Anonymous member, said. “I think shutting down their channels to talk to impressionable youth around the world is a smart move. It definitely creates more work for them. If just a few kids don’t get caught up, I’d be happy.”

High-profile accounts with extreme agendas are taken down by Twitter itself, but often crop up again under a new guise. Still, that means a massive loss of followers.

The consequence is that ISIS has begun moving a lot of its online operations to the Dark web, part of the Deep Web which is accessible through Onion networks like Tor, hiding the identities of those using it. Here, there are illegal trades in drugs, weapons, and data stolen through fraud.

With ISIS propaganda available largely through this hidden web, only those tech-savvy and invested enough will be able to find it. It limits the number of people able to find information and be converted to that cause.

That hasn’t stopped Ghost Sec, a hacking collection related to Anonymous, taking down one ISIS site and replacing it with an ad to a pharmaceutical firm, accompanied by this message: “Enhance your calm. Too many people are into this ISIS-stuff. Please gaze upon this lovely ad so we can upgrade our infrastructure to give you ISIS content you all so desperately crave.”

How Does This Affect You?

Even if you’re not being indoctrinated — and neither are your family or friends — you could still be affected by not only ISIS’ online activities but also the war against them.

Telegram, a messaging service that boasts strong encryption, is also working to stop ISIS activity. “Telegram channels are public broadcasts. They are the opposite of private chats,” their CEO, Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter. “Our policy is simple: privacy is paramount. Public channels, however, have nothing to do with privacy. ISIS public channels will be blocked.”

(Essentially, this means less propaganda, but the group can still organize itself through SMS.)

Despite these assertions, encryption remains a political battleground. Just look at the ongoing battles between Apple’s secure iMessages, and the NSA’s plight for “front-door” access to data. UK Chancellor George Osborne has warned that our infrastructure will be ISIS’ next target: “If our electricity supply, or our air traffic control, or our hospitals were successfully attacked online, the impact could be measured not just in terms of economic damage but of lives lost.”

It’s this sort of rhetoric that’s resulted in the Snooper’s Charter in the UK; a gut reaction against extremists, or, it could be argued, using terrorism as a scapegoat for greater public surveillance.

And although Anonymous is acting altruistically, there have been accusations that innocent sites and profiles have been wrongly linked to ISIS. Anonymous maintain that accusations were as a result of legitimate intel. The problem is that, with a collective made up of anonymous international hackers, their verification processes have to be uniform and fully adhered to.

“In some cases, they could be sympathisers or followers that republish horrifying display,” an Anonymous member, who apparently runs the Operation: Paris Twitter account, says. “We guarantee that we are not making false accusations to those who aren’t actually involved.”

However, it’s very unlikely you’ll be targeted by Anonymous. There are serious repercussions though: take, as an example, this public apology from an Anonymous-affiliated activist who made an innocent man’s name and address public. The man then received death threats.

It’s a reminder that hacktivists are not infallible, and that this isn’t something to take lightly.

Is There Anything You Can Do?

Some Anonymous members have advised brushing up on your hacking skills, but there are a number of more simplistic ways to help.

“You don’t really have to have any hacking skills, and you don’t have to break the law to do something here,” Gregg Housh implores. “Just find ISIS talking online and then tell someone about it. And the best part about it is ISIS is trying to have a good social presence and trying to recruit, so it’s not like they’re hiding.”

Do you support Anonymous? Or are you skeptical of the hackers? What do you think is the best way of combating online extremism ?

Image Credits: Anonymous Support Egypt Uprising by Takver.

Image Credits:Robber man hacking by Peerayot via Shutterstock

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