How Terrorist Groups Can Use Your Computer Against You

In today’s ever-expanding digital world, the apparent link between terrorism and the internet appears to be getting stronger. Gill et al. (2017) have indicated that although radicalisation is not dependent on internet use, the internet can facilitate the adoption of extreme views, and terrorist use of the internet is typically high. Nevertheless, the media, or the government, often makes sweeping claims about how the internet, through social media and echo chambers, can be a weapon to be used against the safety and security of the masses, opening the door for massive security initiatives and sweeping government power, i.e. the Patriot Act or the Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchonization, and Management (PRISM) program.

However, as is often the case when the media attempts to report on complicated issues, there’s a bit more to the story. Terrorists’ use of computers is not as simple as a couple of criminals sitting in a room working to hack into servers or spread radical propaganda. Understanding the different ways terrorists can use computers to further their goals will help improve defenses and make security efforts more effective.

Accessing Personal Information

When discussing terrorists’ use of personal computers, one of the first things that comes to many people’s minds is their personal information. Between the information stored on the device itself and the login information used for countless online services and servers, each computer is a treasure trove of data to be potentially used by terrorists. However, the real target is likely not the information of one person but rather the networks to which this information belongs.

Spear phishing is becoming an increasingly potent tool used by terrorists to carry out their cybercrime objectives. By sending emails that appear to be from legitimate sources, hackers can damage browsers, gain access to servers or plant malware (which can then wreak havoc on the entire network). Most people think they won’t fall for this type of gimmick, but hackers and cybercrime groups can imitate even the most secure services to try and draw you in, as evidenced by the Google Docs phishing scam from earlier this year. Again, these attacks might not be directed at an individual, but allowing terrorists to access whole networks can and will be very dangerous for everyone involved with that network.

For further evidence, one need not look further than today’s best-known terrorist group. The group known to many as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has certainly been attempting to harness the power of the internet. While they do not currently possess the people power to be able to be a serious threat in the cyber world, they are certainly interested in doing so. Back in 2014, Syrian citizen media group,  Raqqah is being Slaughtered Silently (RSS) reported a spear phishing attack that attempted to remove the anonymity of the group’s members, indicating a desire by ISIS to identify and potentially track those creating anti-ISIS rhetoric. These threats are very real, and it is important each individual understands the consequences of following suspicious links and going lax on internet security.

Echo Chambers

Not all of the ways that terrorists use computers will be direct attacks against you. Radical rhetoric turns people off and discourages healthy debate. As Cass Sunstein argued in his seminal 2007 book, “Republic. Com 2.0”, the myriad of choices we have in terms of information seems to present us with the opportunity to hear and understand different points of view about an issue.

However, this ends up having the opposite effect since so many different sources allow us to pick and choose what it is we would like to hear, closing us off to alternative opinions and informed debate. This creates a scenario where debates are isolated from external groups, which only serves to entrench beliefs and block out alternatives. This theory has been tested many times and while it may sound superficially convincing, it is unclear as to whether or not the internet actually drives radicalisation.

The role of the internet in creating echo chambers and radicalisation is muddled further with the work of O’Hare and Stevens (2015) which suggests that echo chambers are neither inherently linked to internet use nor naturally harmful. However, Lee et al. (2014) argue that because those on the fringes of the political spectrum are more likely to post content in line with what they already believe, those who find themselves outside of the mainstream could be more vulnerable to being on the receiving end of radicalised content. But is this caused by the internet? Or is it more a product of someone already having certain beliefs seeking out content in line with what they believe on today’s most accessible medium, the internet? Either way, the jury is still out.

Despite the lack of clarity as to the role of the internet and echo chambers, there is a space for terrorist groups to occupy. By infiltrating networks “on the fringes,” and by posting content congruent with these groups’ beliefs, terrorists can help contribute to the confirmation bias that, if left to its own devices, can contribute to radicalisation. As such, it is important to encourage people to work against this effect so that they can at least be exposed to a more diverse range of opinions and perspectives. One way to do this is through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This tool hides your digital trail online, which disrupts the algorithms used by social media networks that often lead to homogeneous content and a lack of differing views. Those who find themselves closer to the center of the political spectrum may not feel vulnerable, but encouraging good practice to prevent confirmation bias is something needed to promote healthy debate throughout the public sphere.

Seeding Fear

It is important to remember terrorism has as its ultimate goal inciting fear and terror to disrupt peace and order in society. Keeping this in mind, it should be obvious how terrorists can use your computer against you. By continuing to carry out bombings, shootings, cyberattacks, etc., terrorist groups continue to find themselves on the news. Images of chaotic post-explosion scenes or crying children play well in the Western media, and these visuals are exactly what terrorist groups want to be shared with the world. A car bombing may kill no more than 15 people, but the panic it incites around the world has a much larger and more damaging impact. It inflates the threat. For example, according to a Pew Research Poll, 74 percent of Trump supporters consider terrorism to be a “very big problem” facing the country, despite the fact that the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are somewhere around 1 in 3.6 million and that 98.6 percent of terror-related deaths in America occurred all at once, on September 11, 2001. The fact Fox News still hosts the video of the Jordanian pilot being burned alive in 2015 should indicate the audience-attracting value of this type of content.

Additionally, terror is vastly misreported in the media, with attacks involving Muslim-born or Muslim, foreign-born perpetrators receiving disproportionate coverage. In this case, though, terrorists aren’t using computers against us so much as we are. The rapid spread of information facilitated by computers and the internet sends these messages out to the public quickly and easily, and no matter how much nuance is added later on, the initial shock value this provides goes a long way towards shaping societal views about terrorism and its threats. This can have profound consequences, as these views are often what gives political support for military action abroad, adding more fuel to the fire and further destabilising entire regions of the world.

The rise of computers and digital technologies is one of history’s largest double-edged swords. It arms people with the ability to inform themselves about the world around them, but it also presents a window of opportunity for terrorists to attack the peace and security of the world in which many of us live. Constant vigilance and awareness are essential if this threat is to be addressed, and it is important each individual realise their role in preventing radicalism and extremist behaviors from doing more damage than they already have.

About the Author: Sandra is a freelance blogger who specialises in internet security and cybercrime. As a student of how digital technology has reshaped modern life, she is concerned that the awesome power of the internet will fall victim to restriction due to fear from extremist groups, and she dedicates herself to educating people how to use the internet for good so that this does not happen.

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