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.