By Kaye Foley
Terrorists in the modern age have a tool in their arsenal that allows them to operate under the radar: technology.
After a series of unexpected and devastating attacks, counterterrorism officials believe that it’s getting harder to track ISIS because they “go dark” through the use of encryption messaging and apps.
The act of encryption, when a message is encoded so others can’t read it, is centuries old. Think of Egyptians and cryptography or Julius Caesar and the Caesar cipher. But now, the Internet and tech advancements have propelled encryption into the digital age. Most encryption programs transform information into a series of letters and numbers, which can only be opened with a key. One message can have multiple codes, each with a different key, making it a nearly impossible to crack.
We use encryption often in our daily lives when we go online, like when we shop or bank. But databases exist that can be used to really cover a person’s tracks. Software like Tor — originally developed by the U.S. government to protect private intelligence information — uses an anonymous network of servers to create a space on the “dark Web” where people with access are untraceable online.
Encryption apps like Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram use end-to-end encryption, meaning only the people sending and receiving the messages can see them. Many of these apps have settings that allow messages to disappear after a set time or to prevent messages from being forwarded.
Terror groups have encrypted their information for years, but recently, the technology has become more secure and accessible. Government intelligence agencies want tech companies to leave a flaw, or “back door,” in their programs, so they have a way to decrypt messages if needed. But cybersecurity experts warn against this, saying it leaves the products vulnerable to hackers.
Even with encrypted communication, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are able gather critical clues and information, but it can be more difficult. So the next time you hear about encrypted messaging apps, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”