New Study Says There's No Evidence That Terrorists Changed How They Communicate Post-Snowden

from the because-they-already-knew dept

One of the standard talking points right after the Ed Snowden revelations first started coming out was that the leaks were causing terrorists to change how they communicated, meaning that US intelligence was somehow “losing track” of important information on the whereabouts and plans of terrorists. The most obvious example of this was from CNN “reporter” Barbara Starr (who has a long track record of repeating Defense Department talking points) who directly claimed: “terrorists are trying to change the way they communicate because of what they learned from Edward Snowden’s admitted leaks of classified information about government surveillance programs.” We questioned this claim on a number of points — in part because there was plenty of evidence that most terrorists already suspected such surveillance and acted accordingly. Meanwhile, in private, James Clapper (who publicly was claiming massive damage from terrorists changing how they communicate) admitted that he really wasn’t that worried.

Clapper has said repeatedly in public that the leaks did great damage, but in private he has taken a more nuanced stance. A review of early damage assessments in previous espionage cases, he said in one closed-door briefing this fall, found that dire forecasts of harm were seldom borne out.

So it should come as no surprise at all that a new research report more or less confirms that there is no evidence of terrorists changing how they communicate post-Snowden. You can read the full report from Flashpoint Partners yourself, but it’s pretty clear:

  • The underlying public encryption methods employed by online jihadists do not appear to have significantly changed since the emergence of Edward Snowden. Major recent technological advancements have focused primarily on expanding the use of encryption to instant messenger and mobile communications mediums.
  • Aside from warning of tampered copies of ?Asrar al-Mujahideen? that were deliberately infected with spyware, none of the prominent jihadi logistical units have expressed any public doubt as to the continued effectiveness of encryption methods employed in their software packages that were released prior to the Snowden leaks.
  • The actual release of new jihadi-themed encryption software packages, like ?Asrar al-Dardashah,? seems to have had a far more noticeable impact in terms of driving waves of interest in the subject of encryption among users of jihadi web forums than the publication of the Snowden NSA revelations in June 2013.
  • Well prior to Edward Snowden, online jihadists were already aware that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were attempting to monitor them. As a result, the Snowden revelations likely merely confirmed the suspicions of many of these actors, the more advanced of which were already making use of ? and developing ?secure communications software.

In other words, as we said, most terrorists already assumed their electronic communications were at risk and acted accordingly. There is little to no evidence that Snowden’s leaks had any significant impact at all. The report shows that encryption packages were popular well before the Snowden leaks, and little seems to have changed after the Snowden leaks.

The report also looked at forum discussions on various encryption techniques on forums frequented by terrorist groups. As you can see from the following two charts, there doesn’t appear to be any bump in discussions about encryption or related software post Snowden (the leaks began in June of 2013). If anything there was much more discussion before the Snowden revelations started:

The full report is quite interesting, though I doubt we’ll see any NSA defenders/Snowden haters admitting that their doom and gloom claims turned out to be false.

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Comments on “New Study Says There's No Evidence That Terrorists Changed How They Communicate Post-Snowden”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Sick of it...

History has proven time and again that the oppression of people comes in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

I care less about what intel that comes out that might change how the ‘terrorists’ communicate. What I care about is the mentality that this nation has to operate in the secret just like the ‘Bad Guys’ in order to fight them.

Only ‘Bad Guys’ like to operate in the dark, for very obvious reasons and the reasons that this government likes to operate in the dark is because it is breaking the law and the constitution to worthless pieces. There is literally no right not under assault by this government in pursuit of stopping terrorism.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Terrorists aren’t dumb enough to use the services that the NSA dredges most of its data up from, like Gmail. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a terrorist use Skype to IM his jihadist buddies about his plans to blow something up? The NSA is coincidentally really good at spying on people who don’t think they’re being spied on.

Citizen says:

Re: Re:

There’s pretty strong evidence that ISIL has some computer literate people among them, and probably is attempting to evade decryption in fairly advanced ways, as is Iran, Russia and China. There are offenses in the NSA’s effort to harvest communications within this country, but it takes a stretch of the imagination to assume they are busy inspecting the dirty laundry of citizens before it attempts to predict the intentions of regimes that are directly hostile or have hostile factions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“but it takes a stretch of the imagination to assume they are busy inspecting the dirty laundry of citizens before it attempts to predict the intentions of regimes that are directly hostile or have hostile factions.”

Guess you have not bothered to read the news much! And if you think it is a stretch then you need to stop voting because you are not competent enough to select the proper candidate. Governments have a dirty long list of doing just exactly what you called a stretch without having the convenience of technology.

Citizen says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The point isn’t that it is an offence to collect internal communications, which it is. But outside of the offending principle, there’s a meaningful difference between collecting and interpreting petabytes of data, most of which is related to foreign communications. You’re giving you’re imagination free reign if you believe your conversations are actually interpreted. It’s a gross overestimate of government competence to assume they extract meaningful information from more than a very small fraction of the data they collect.

You may not be reading the news much, but there are substantial threats, electronic and material, from foreign organizations that don’t exactly telegraph their intentions, (as the US oddly does). While it’s true that effective uses of surveillance is rare, it’s still an important resource that can be properly leveraged in some circumstances.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Even if you are correct, the problem is that they are also collecting all of this communication information allowing them to go back and interpret it when they decide you are in their sights.

While they may not be actively targeting people with different political views, the information they have makes it really easy to do so. Not only has everyone in history that has been given unchecked power abused it, we have actually seen that the NSA routinely abuses these powers. Retaining their position of power will inevitably become their priority (if it isn’t already) and that has to be stopped while we still have the ability to do so without violence.

Citizen says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

It’s absolutely true that authority granted to one administration the potential for later abuse by another. That’s true for all entitlements granted to all officials. The threat of the abuse of power is always looming. That was very vividly enunciated by the developers of the bomb, especially Einstein and Oppenheimer. Leaving collected information for later access has that same threat. There are strong arguments for it to just age out after a certain period, which the technology favors since storage capacity is finite. But the argument to abandon the capability to defend against later abuse needs to be weighed against the opportunity to make more informed decisions about elected officials.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:


The NSA is so stupid that they fail to understand that it is more likely that their supposed nemesis’ will use their online activities to mislead those listening, yet they take it all like candy being distributed to children at Halloween.

Like the FBI, creating bad guys is easier than actually finding and catching actual bad guys.

If only there was a way to target their listening…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Disinformation

keep your friends close but your enemies closer is for this very reason.

All war is deception, I would definitely be using the interwebs to keep the 3-letter jackholes focused on their own citizens saying Joe Green is a well established operative targeting high value assets.

Make the enemy do your work for you… the USA has not learned this lesson yet, but the Terrorists are well versed in it has had the US dancing like a fraidy bitch for well over a decade now.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Disinformation (indeed)

“ has had the US dancing like a fraidy bitch for well over a decade now”

That just happens to be the best paid, and best funded fraidy bitch on earth.

53 billion dollars a year worth of fraidy bitch in fact.

I think the Fraidy Bitch not only learned the lesson well and long ago, but manufactured the excuse, specifially in order to pay its self a king’s ransom every year, forever, at your expense.

I’ve always found that if you follow the money, you will always find the real bad guys.

farooge (profile) says:

"Barbara Starr"

Was the ‘Star’ of my epiphany about ‘the news’.

I started reading the press briefing and realized she was taking directly from them with the same (fucking arrogant) attitude and (usually banal) talking points the flacks who got their paychecks from the government (well, directly at least) were using.

That seems like ages ago and I can not believe she’s still employed in the ‘news’ business

Anonymous Coward says:

If anyone took what Clapper said as meaningful, I’m amazed. It was already on record that the terrorists were well aware that their communications were bugged and monitored.

If you remember, there was a lot of humbug over wedding parties and funerals being targeted and getting the wrong people who were not terrorists. This happened because the terrorists figured out they were being targeted from the drones because of their SIM chips in their cell phones were IDing them. They put the chips in a bag, mixed them up and then passed them around so no one knew who had what SIM chip, which eliminated that method of targeting.

So encryption or not, they were already aware before the Snowden releases started.

The excuses given by Clapper were never anything more than attempted misdirection while at the same time attempting to justify Snowden being a criminal rather than a whistle blower.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“They put the chips in a bag, mixed them up and then passed them around so no one knew who had what SIM chip, which eliminated that method of targeting.”

This particular scenario has been used almost verbatim a great number of times to date and it always made me wonder if it was an actual event described by an actual terrorist to someone who then reported it to the west somehow, or if it was just a bit of Think-Tank propaganda tossed into the debate to keep the US public from realizing that the drones are actually killing innocent parties and missing the officially designated terrorists altogether.

This scenario reeks of the western “suicide bomber” mythos, by implying that the terrorists are letting fate decide which one of them is carrying the next to be droned SIM in his phone that day, and thus willingly taking the hit, along with whoever he is sitting with at the time, for martyrdom sake.

I mean, if you were a terrorist group aware of being spied on and aware that this was the method used, would you not consider it to be far less self-destructive to simply replace all of your terrorist gangs’ NSA tagged SIMs with black-market SIMs from say, Russia or China, and to toss the NSA tagged chips into the houses or businesses of people you did not like…. so the US could drone-execute them for you.

Doe anyone know the origin of the SIM chip Bag story??

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Because they're listening

Operational security requires any organization concerned with interception of messages assume worst case. Anyone paying attention “knows” that NSA/CIA/FBI/etc. has been listening on all channels since the before the days of Echelon rumors.

It is stupid to assume anything else if a government is looking to crush you.

If the TLA’s ever thought otherwise, well that would fit my usual opinion of their “intelligence”. But I don’t think that’s the case: instead I think it’s just a cynical justification for pathological secrecy.

GEMont (profile) says:

Oh! Look over there!

“New Study Says There’s No Evidence That Terrorists Changed How They Communicate Post-Snowden”

Yet the NSA and other spook agencies, world wide, somehow managed to completely miss the entire birth, growth, and mobilization of ISIS – the Army of masked, black-clad, Die-Hard type Hollywood Super Terrorists, that manage to conveniently “prove” the need for enormously bloated Anti-Terrorist Budgets, Mass Public Surveillance programs and the continuation and escalation of the War On Terror, through their internet-posting of recorded atrocities.

This just in:

US Officials now say its quite obvious ISIS communicated its vital intelligence via smoke signals and hand-passed notes written on flash paper, during that time period, and may have used what officials are calling camel-drop sites, where messages were passed via strategically organized camel turd patterns left in the sand of specially designated water holes and camel parking lots.

As the un-named NSA official told reporters:

“These boys really know their shit.”

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oh! Look over there!

Not a proof to you and I perhaps.

And I do use the term “prove” in jest.

It is after all, a political proof, otherwise known as the Big Lie, dependant on an emotional trigger, not a scientific proof.

And the “think-tanks” that constitute the government’s brain, obviously consider a black-clad and black-masked, blatantly visible, extremely well-organized, incredibly well-equipped, Hollywood-Die-Hard-style-Evil-Acting and Boldly USA-hating Terrorist Gang to be far more effective in swaying those in the general public who now believe 9/11 was a real external terrorist attack, into supporting greater anti-terrorist expenditures, escalating drone strikes on foreign targets, more war in the middle east, increased US and foreign citizen surveillance and more unconstitutional actions by all branches of government.

Because the Federal Government’s reaction to ISIS will be greater anti-terrorist expenditures, escalating drone strikes on foreign targets, more war in the middle east, increased US and foreign citizen surveillance, and more unconstitutional actions by all branches of the US government…..all on the taxpayer’s dime, with their apparent consent.

You really don’t have to fool all the People all the time.

In a pseudo-democracy, you only need to fool a majority of the people all the time.

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