Enter the maze

Battle by binary

Terror on the net

Al Quaida Headine

The growth in popularity of the internet over the past decade has provided a wonderful method of communication for those with access to it. We can email home from the other side of the world in seconds, rather than sending a postcard that will arrive a week after we get back. Unfortunately this technology is also available for the transmission of information with the potential to harm us all.

Those participating in terrorist attacks have gained a great tool in the Internet. The positive aspects that have made it an integral part of our lives keeping us connected with each other (like Chat/IRC, forums, and email) are also being used to send information and to co-ordinate activities by terrorists. The Internet is additionally a major factor in globalisation and the removal of geographic boundaries. This has allowed terrorism to spread more easily without needing the person orchestrating the operation to physically be where the atrocity happens.

The desire to spread information was one of the main drivers behind the creation of the Internet. It has clearly succeeded. This disbursal is neither good nor evil on its own, but only in how it's used. Terrorists are taking advantage of it through the use of anonymous email accounts, dead mail drops, and a process called steganography. Steganography in the Internet age involves the embedding of messages within digital images by altering the byte count, making messages difficult to track.

The curious case of the vanishing Obelisk

An example of the use of the Internet for clandestine communication by terrorist groups can be seen in a recent Al Qaeda video discovered in the United States. Al Qaeda has been using chat sites, email lists, and forums to communicate with each other in an organised, though disbursed manner, called Obelisk. When the video appeared on the US news channels, knowing their operations had been compromised, Al Qaeda immediately closed down those communications.

Nick Grace, the founder of a website on clandestine broadcasting, tracked the shutdown of Qaeda's Obelisk system in real time. "It was both unprecedented and chilling from the perspective of a Web techie. The discipline and co-ordination to take the entire system down involving multiple Web servers, hundreds of user names and passwords, is an astounding feat, especially that it was done within minutes."

The speed at which they shut down their network shows how they are taking full advantage of the instant and rapid communication available on the web. If the Internet is designed to transfer information quickly and can be used in such an encrypted manner, how are we to protect ourselves from future instances of terrorism? One way can be to use the same methods that are being used against us as noted in the above example. Operatives are infiltrating the terrorist networks and learning the techniques being used by terrorists to communicate. With this information, they are able to eavesdrop and use the information to counteract future planned attacks. Dynamic usage of the Internet is being used against us and only through being equally dynamic can we safeguard ourselves as well.

War is never good, but have any good things come from it? This article is part of a series by James Snee, Marc Trepanier, Daniel Valverde and Yi Ming Woo, students at Queen Mary, University of London, investigating how military and security concerns are linked with the advancement of technology.