Shallow Surveillance Efforts Like PRISM Will Only Catch The 'Stupidest, Lowest-Ranking Of Terrorists'
from the better-watch-out-for-the-skin-deep dept
Government officials keep assuring the public that these surveillance programs are in place to track terrorists and prevent further violent activity aimed at our nation. But much of what the government actually tracks and collects is nearly useless. It's aimed at the sort of platforms and communication devices used by the general public -- the sort of people who make use of the "top level" because they actually have nothing to hide.
Leonid Bershidsky argues that casting the net wide, but only to a shallow depth, won't actually "catch" anything but the most inept of terrorists.
The infrastructure set up by the National Security Agency, however, may only be good for gathering information on the stupidest, lowest-ranking of terrorists. The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the servers of America’s largest Internet companies, which support such popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services that truly dangerous elements typically use.Truly dangerous people are smart enough to know to avoid anything easily tracked, surveilled or easily exposed. There may be a little value in catching anything that briefly rises to the surface or surveilling the "public faces" of terrorism, but those serious about their agenda will be operating far below these easily-tapped sources.
In a January 2012 report titled “Jihadism on the Web: A Breeding Ground for Jihad in the Modern Age,” the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service drew a convincing picture of an Islamist Web underground centered around “core forums.” These websites are part of the Deep Web, or Undernet, the multitude of online resources not indexed by commonly used search engines.If someone or something doesn't want to be found on the internet, it's easy to stay hidden, or at the very least, continue to operate below the dragnet. On top of what's not being indexed, there are options available to go completely off the grid. This makes steady communication difficult, but not impossible. What does happen on the net is encrypted or otherwise obfuscated.
The Netherlands’ security service, which couldn’t find recent data on the size of the Undernet, cited a 2003 study from the University of California at Berkeley as the “latest available scientific assessment.” The study found that just 0.2 percent of the Internet could be searched. The rest remained inscrutable and has probably grown since. In 2010, Google Inc. said it had indexed just 0.004 percent of the information on the Internet.
Communication on the core forums is often encrypted. In 2012, a French court found nuclear physicist Adlene Hicheur guilty of, among other things, conspiring to commit an act of terror for distributing and using software called Asrar al-Mujahideen, or Mujahideen Secrets. The program employed various cutting-edge encryption methods, including variable stealth ciphers and RSA 2,048-bit keys.As Bershidsky puts it, tools like the PRISM system and phone metadata are much better suited for surveilling those who don't have any reason to suspect the government has an interest in their movements and actions. In other words: American citizens, the same people who are supposedly not being targeted.
If the FBI and the NSA are only interested in catching clumsy would-be terrorists who can't be bothered to stay off open channels, then, much like the programs themselves, they can only offer us a false sense of security. Being saved from the bench warmers of the terrorism world doesn't ultimately do anything to increase safety, but it does give these agencies something to point to when their actions are questioned. (The FBI has practically set up its own "Busting Stupid Terrorists" cottage industry.) "We stopped [insert plausible but impressive number here] attacks, therefore we need to continue collecting 'dots' and multiple haystacks of connective material."
Whatever the FBI and NSA are gathering from skimming the web's surface is only a minute percentage of what's available. It would seem that deeper, targeted efforts would be much more effective, rather than simply asking for everything and working backwards. But if the actual intent is to surveill American citizens (with prevented acts of terrorism being a bonus), then these agencies are in the perfect position to do exactly that.