New Method of Crime
Crime is as old as time itself, in fact sociologist Émile Durkheim suggested that crime occurs in every society, ‘there is not one in which criminality does not exist’ (1895). However, in recent years it has found itself a new platform. A platform which allows crime a freedom it previously didn’t have, a platform which grants anonymity; the Internet. Physical evidence of Internet based crime is perceived to be scarce and this becomes more relevant when issues such as encryption and stenography are considered. The rate of cybercrime is increasing; according to the Office for National Statistics cybercrime accounts for 40 percent of all reported crime in England and Wales (Travis, 2016).
Perhaps it is best to look first at a definition of cybercrime; ‘Cybercrime encompasses all crimes involving computers, including infiltrating protected systems, espionage, identity theft, fraud, child pornography and child exploitation’ (Smith, 2008). This definition is broad and includes aspects of crime that are made easier due to the ever-evolving technology surrounding the Internet. However, this blog will explore cyber terrorism in greater detail. It is an extremely important area of future security measures, both on and off line. While it is not a topic that is currently given much coverage, it is a source of unavoidable devastation if technologies are not controlled. As societies advance, so too do terrorist groups. Terror organisations delve deep into the online world to ensure that they are not left vulnerable and to explore a new way of inciting fear and panic into the community.
It is difficult to imagine terrorists being able to cause the same wide spread panic and alarm that acts of terrorism normally induce through the Internet (Council of Europe, 2007). The body count through Internet based terrorism remains low, however the issue of hacking remains. As technology advances, society steps further into the ‘Internet of Things’, creating more hacking opportunities for terrorists. Technology is glorified by society; a computer is trusted to direct an aircraft more than the pilot who trained for numerous years in the profession. While it might ensure a greater level of safety, it also causes the aircraft and its passengers to become more susceptible to an act of terrorism.
The tragic events of September 11th, 2001 are an example of hijacking, with new technology hacking is more of a concern. It’s entirely possible for a potential terrorist to use the on-board Wi-Fi of an aircraft to hack into the computer system and override the actions of the pilot (Magee, 2016). In this way, it is possible for a terrorist to bring down a plane by means of cyber space. Vicious malware has caused devastation to aircraft in the past, such as the 2008 Spanair crash in Barcelona. In this case, the infected computer system failed to detect a fault with the aircraft’s mechanics. This oversight caused the plane to crash minutes after take-off, leading to the loss of over 100 lives. (Meredith, 2010). While an act of terrorism wasn’t at play here, it does serve to convey the possibility that terrorist placed malware can lead to tragic events.
The Internet and Online Propaganda
One of the biggest areas of worry for society is the incidence of online propaganda. The Internet allows terrorists to spread their ideology to many people, conceivably vulnerable people who may be isolated and interested in extremist viewpoints. Therefore, the online world is most useful to terrorist cells in a traditional sense; communication. Videos and images have surfaced of different acts carried out by terrorist groups including images of members of Islamic State pushing men, who they believe to defer from a traditional sexual orientation, to their death from the rooftop of a hotel (Tharoor, 2016). The spread of such content through the media is highly dangerous to the LGBT+ community and indeed to wider society. Such images are believed to have contributed to the mindset of the terrorist who killed 49 people in a nightclub in Florida in 2016. The perpetrator claimed that the attack was also a retaliation for bombings carried out by the US. While the motive remains unclear, it is almost certain that the Internet and the terrorist group’s use of it, influenced the shooter to carry out one of the worst mass shootings in recent American history.
The publicity terrorist groups obtain through the Internet is far and widespread, it is a direct result of the globalised nature of the online world. Groups use this globalised effect to their advantage by trying to recruit members online. Many organisations can avoid detection as the website addresses change, while the content remains the same. The Internet allows for freedom, as any degree of information can be accessed without arousing suspicion (Council of Europe, 2007). In this way both recruitment and information gathering can be done online. Terrorist groups using an online platform strive to offer a utopian view of life with the group. Their beliefs are made clear, while showing how recruits can benefit from the same way of life. By using the Internet, they can present what they know will appeal to potential recruits, possibly promoting traditional ways of living and adhering to religious rules. This is perhaps one of the most dangerous forms of cyber usage when it comes to terrorists. While it may not be a fatal attack or cause mass destruction, it should be considered cyber terrorism and it needs to be addressed.
A Traditional Use of the Internet
At its heart the Internet is a communication device, it allows for the fast transmission of information from one person to another. Terrorist groups take full advantage of this. Through the online world communication between such groups is made simpler, trying to infiltrate the data sent is difficult and time consuming. Many terrorist groups are using a 512-bit encryption key, a notoriously complex key to crack. Nagpal suggests ‘Strong encryption is the criminal’s best friend and the policeman’s worst enemy’, (2002) and this is seen to be true in multiple cases. It is believed that the group behind the September 11th, 2001 attacks used this encryption key to send messages among the group (Nagpal, 2002). Another example of encryption use took place in 1995 in Japan involving a cult organisation known as the Aum Supreme Truth. The group formulated substances that could have been used as chemical weapons, and were in fact used. In March 1995, the group released sarin into crowded train carriages (Latson, 2015). Sarin is a man-made toxin which was originally used as a pesticide (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention). The details relating to plans and future attacks were all encrypted on a computer used by the cult, fortunately the key was also found, and plans were decrypted by authorities before any more attacks occurred (Nagpal, 2002).
In contemporary society it also has significant measures in information gathering. Terrorist cells can access a world of data, including information on poisons and home-made bombs. There have been several attacks where the perpetrator learned how to carry out such incidences by using online resources such as handbooks released by known terrorist organisations. One such manual is called ‘The Terrorist’s Handbook’, information gathered from this source caused three deaths in a London case in 1999 (Weimann, 2004). As well as these more extreme examples, organisations can view details of counterterrorism measures, ensuring that the organisation remains informed and are always one step ahead of international responses.
Tackling Cyber Terrorism and the Issue of Censorship
A major issue in tackling cyber terrorism is that society tends to dismiss it as an issue that can be dealt with at a later stage. It is not something that can be visibly seen, it does not seem to pose an immediate threat. In the modern age, society is more concerned with the current issues facing it, a potential use of the Internet for terrorism purposes is usually overlooked in everyday life. However, this seemingly casual attitude is rooted in fear. For the most part the Internet has been seen to be an essential tool in contemporary living, most do not see it as a weapon to spread propaganda and radical perspectives. It is possible people do not think about the world of information at the fingertips of terrorist groups. As the argument on Internet freedom continues, it must be remembered that not all dangerous information is looked upon with an air of curiosity, terrorists are viewing this material with the intent to cause destruction.
Restricting access to Internet content leads to censorship and therefore impacts on wider society. Although a seemingly easy solution to prevent terrorist organisations gaining dangerous information, is to remove this content from the Internet, it is a form of censorship. It also brings a whole host of problems as you cannot easily remove something from the online world, it will reappear elsewhere almost immediately. The issues surrounding encryption and stenography also re-emerge as groups who have a vast array of knowledge in this particular area can share this information with others, leading back to the Internet being a tool of communication. Quite simply, even if terrorist organisations could not gain access to the Internet, they can obtain the same information somewhere else such as chemistry textbooks. Among all of this is the impact of preventing the flow of information to wider society. Governments censoring content in an effort to prevent cyberterrorism effects the general population. Civil freedom is diminished and perhaps that is the price society must pay to combat cyberterrorism (Weimann, 2004).
Taking Online Safety into Our Own Hands
Cyberterrorism has major consequences for society. It causes fear of the unknown, just how far will technology develop in favour of the terrorist. People are anxious as to what can be achieved by terrorists in this manner. In support of society, hacktivist groups such as Anonymous have pledged to remove terrorist propaganda including websites and Twitter accounts. The group, whose identity is unknown, are notorious for the eradication of images and videos distributed by terrorist groups. Despite their efforts, authorities worry that Anonymous may be disrupting ongoing investigations into the terrorists’ forums and websites (Greenemeier, 2015). It is clear the group must be careful in order not to dismantle the work of police and wider authorities, yet Anonymous’ work can only be described as a positive intervention. The group remove gruesome images from circulation on various websites preventing a large proportion of the population from ever seeing it. They are also known for infiltrating the fundraising efforts of Islamic State (Greenemeier, 2015). Groups like Anonymous should be welcomed by society, the government and authorities may have undercover investigations online, yet the public aren’t aware of these operations. Anonymous broadcasts many of their successes which gives people a greater sense of safety. The wider community is aware that the cyberworld of terrorists is being governed.
The Future of Society if Internet Technology is Uncontrolled
Conclusively, while cyberterrorism may be an area of crime that is under the radar of the average person, it is a matter for concern. Cyberterrorism does not simply incorporate destruction by means of hacking, whether it be the hacking of computer systems or infrastructure, cyberterrorism is much more complex than that. The accumulation of information gathered by terrorists through the Internet needs to be addressed, yet the authorities tend to ignore this as governance can prevent the free-flowing of information. Perhaps the only effective way of preventing the transmission of such information is to enact some form of online censorship. It leads to the question of what is more important; combatting cyberterrorism or civil freedom. The spread of propaganda and the recruitment drive the online world enables is perhaps the biggest element of worry. As such, activist groups like Anonymous should not be discouraged, especially since authorities wishing to maintain the civil rights of their people are effectively putting citizens at risk due to a lack of appropriate action. Cyberterrorism is a serious issue and it relates directly to the issue of developing technologies and Internet freedom. If the so called inevitable way of living due to technology is leading to a life of fear and panic of the unknown, perhaps terrorists have society in their grasp; distressed and unsure of what is going to happen next.
The continued development of technology is not imminent, particularly when it can facilitate terrorists in recruitment and violent attacks. We control technology and its advancement, we must ensure the Internet is not a place for carrying out acts of brutality, in both information gathering and hacking instances. Society must be protected and allowing terrorists to freely use the Internet leaves society more susceptible than ever before.
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Sarin GB [online]. Available at: https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/sarin/basics/facts.asp Accessed 12 October 2017
- Council of Europe (2007) Cyberterrorism – The use of the Internet for terrorist purposes. Council of Europe Publishing
- Durkheim, É. (1895) The Rules of Sociological Method. Paris: Librairie Felix Alcan
- Greenemeier, L. (2015) Anonymous’s Cyber War with ISIS Could Compromise Terrorism Intelligence. Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/anonymous-s-cyber-war-with-isis-could-compromise-terrorism-intelligence/ Accessed 17 October 2017
- Magee, T. (2016) Is it possible to hack a plane? [online] Tech World. Available at: https://www.techworld.com/security/is-it-possible-hack-plane-3644970/ Accessed 16 October 2017
- Meredith, L. (2010) Malware Implicated in Fatal Spanair Plane Crash [online]. Live Science. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/10048-malware-implicated-fatal-spanair-plane-crash.html Accessed 15 October 2017
- Nagpal, R. (2002) Cyber Terrorism in the Context of Globalization. In Paper Presented to the II World Congress on Informatics and Law, Madrid, Spain
- Latson, J. (2016) How a Religious Sect Rooted in Yoga Became a Terrorist Group. [online]. Available at: http://time.com/3742241/tokyo-subway-attack-1995/ Accessed 15 October 2017
- Smith, L. (2008) The New Challenges of Cybercrime. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 20(5), pp. 356
- Tharoor, I. (2016) The Islamic State’s shocking war on gays. Washington Post. [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/13/the-islamic-states-shocking-war-on-homosexuals/?utm_term=.68a9603ad239 Accessed 16 October 2017
- Travis, A. (2016) Cybercrime figures prompt police call for awareness campaign. The Guardian, July 21. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/21/crime-rate-online-offences-cybercrime-ons-figures Accessed 15 October 2017
- Weimann, G. (2004) How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet. Washington: United States Institute of Peace.
Emma Ruane is currently an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway