It would have seemed unfathomable just a few short years ago, but terrorist organisations now have social media best practice guides. The sort of thing that, until very recently, was the preserve of digital marketing agencies and lifestyle brands concerned with 'influencer engagement' and keeping their content 'on brand' is now being used by the likes of ISIS to evade surveillance and detection. One particular guide, posted in Arabic to an anonymous and impossible-to-track text hosting site, explains how to set up social media accounts that cannot be traced back to the original account holder.
This commitment to, and successful implementation of, unbreachable online privacy is what prompted major figures in Western intelligence circles to declare that they are in an arms race with the terrorists. Alex Younger, head of MI6, said last month (March 2015): Using data appropriately and proportionately offers us a priceless opportunity to be even more deliberate and targeted in what we do, and so to be better at protecting our agents and this country. The bad news is that the same technology in opposition hands, an opposition unconstrained by the consideration of ethics and law, allows them to see what we are doing and to put our people and agents at risk.
So we find ourselves in a technology arms race. Shortly after this declaration, the head of Interpol, Rob Wainright, told BBC 5 Live Investigates that encryption software was perhaps the biggest problem for the police and the security service authorities in dealing with the threats from terrorism" Encryption and privacy are the new spycraft and its because of Edward Snowden.
His revelations have alerted the world to the degree to which government agencies are able to monitor us online and the techniques they use to do so. The response has been good and bad; non-profit organisations are developing tools to keep ordinary citizens' activities private from the snoopers, but terrorists such as Islamic State are joining the party too. Since Snowdens revelations, intelligence services have had to think up new ways to keep tabs on their targets.
The old ways, now out in the open, are useless as those targets of surveillance know exactly how they are being monitored. One spy based at GCHQ said their job now takes 1,000 times longer. Anonymous, the notoriously effective hacking group that campaigns for Internet privacy, recently took down a number of social media accounts associated with the Islamic State by itself.
This is a good thing, although its worrying that a voluntary group of hacktivists are doing work that used to be covertly executed by our intelligence services with minimum fuss. Its tempting to frame this as a race between good and evil, but its never as simple as that. Authorities will always use terrorists as an excuse to snoop on people. Whether they are able to do so depends entirely on how willing the people are to be snooped on, and it seems that tolerance for this sort of thing is diminishing very quickly.
Who is involved in the tech arms race?
Islamic State - Using hard-to-track social media accounts to spread propaganda and recruit people. Drug dealers, hitmen and arms dealers - Since the notorious drug dealing dark web website The Silk Road, which enabled the relatively safe purchase of narcotics, weapons and even illegal services using Bitcoin, got taken down, the vacuum has been quickly filled by new ones, offering similar services. Hacktivists - Anonymous have been successfully encrypting for years to avoid detection.
Government agencies - Pretty much all intelligence agencies are now involved in covert snooping using encryption software to conceal their own identities. Private citizens - The likes of you and I are also using encryption software to ensure our privacy remains intact. More and more web users are now browsing using encrypted browsers such as Tor, ghost VPN services, spy hardware and encrypted and disposable email accounts. Theres even an encrypted operating system called Tails.