Terrorists Have Known Their Cellphones Are Surveillance Targets For Over A Decade But Suddenly It's Greenwald And Snowden's Fault?

from the al-Qaeda-now-celebrating-'Snowden-Day'-every-June-6th dept

The NSA's defenders (including those on the other side of the pond) have been making the claim for the last several months that each new revelation is enabling terrorists to find ways to beat the surveillance system. But much of what has been revealed has either been a.) something that was long suspected (the Section 215 program, communications being harvested from underseas cables) or b.) something any careful terrorist would have avoided (popular platforms, services and software).

Another minor ruckus was raised when the New York Times screwed up its redaction of documents (again, apparently Snowden's "fault" because he turned sensitive documents over to incompetents) related to cell phone tracking and accidentally exposed one of the program's targets: al Qaeda's operations in Mosul, Iraq. It's no secret al Qaeda has been public enemy #1 since before the 9/11 attacks, which makes claims that stuff like this "tips off" terrorists completely inexplicable. They've been targeted for well over a decade. Why would this be a surprise?

Tracing cellphones, tracking their location and intercepting communications have all been detailed by Snowden's leaks, but not only is this fairly basic (and expected) surveillance, it's also nothing new and nothing that hasn't been previously reported by the national media.

Poyan Nahrvar, a Canadian engineer, tweeted this out on Friday.

The link in the tweet leads to a 2004 story by The Christian Science Monitor, which details all of the above in its rundown of the success these cellphone-tracking efforts were having in the fight against terrorism.

An ordinary-looking grid map of Riyadh adorns one wall of a command-and-control center deep inside a government building in Saudi Arabia's capital.

The map is higher-tech than it appears at first glance. Tiny embedded lights flash red when certain cellphones - those belonging to suspected terrorists - initiate or receive a call. [O]fficials… decide instantly whether simply to watch and listen to the suspected terrorist - or to send in screaming police cars to nab him…

It doesn't take long for terrorists to figure out how authorities are tracing them and then change methods. Still, the technology has proved helpful in rolling up cells in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and America…

Terrorists, of course, catch on to the new tracking procedures and seek safer ways to communicate. Osama bin Laden, for example, stopped using satellite phones because he found out - with the delivery of a guided missile - that the US was tracking his position via the satellite…

After years of tracking terrorists, investigators have amassed a large database of land-line and traditional cellphone numbers they are watching (or listening to). All it takes is a call from one of those numbers to a phone with a SIM card to discover who's using the undetectable phone.
All of this reported and yet no hand-wringing about how the government's surveillance techniques had been exposed giving the terrorists the upper hand. Everything detailed here isn't too far removed from what's been published in the last seven months. Terrorists have known about cellphone tracking for well over a decade and have been making adjustments ever since.

To imply that it's only now that terrorists are being alerted to surveillance techniques is to be deliberately obtuse and/or intellectually dishonest. Cellphones aren't to be trusted and haven't been for several years. Any terrorist who says, "But I only used it for Angry Birds" (the topic of the New York Times article with the faulty redaction) to his droned companions isn't going to stay alive long enough for the US to finish him or her off. His colleagues will take care of that themselves.

Without a doubt, there are stupid terrorists out there who may only now be aware their cellphone is selling them out to a variety of intelligence agencies, but that's only because they're stupid, not because a majority of the information Snowden leaked is actually new or even unexpected. Snowden's leaks exposed the NSA's programs in greater detail and, more importantly, exposed the fact that the NSA's activities aren't always targeted at terrorism. He also exposed the "collect it all" mentality, which is the most dangerous aspect of its many programs, which goes far beyond its stated "national security" goals. But acting as though terrorists would only now be aware their cellphones are being tracked is asinine.

Filed Under: edward snowden, glenn greenwald, nsa, surveillance, terrorism

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2014 @ 8:51am

    Guilt by association, whatever...
    You're foreign so have a 3x generation hellfire missile.

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