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Testing Solutions for Intelligence and Security Professionals in Fighting ISIS in the Encrypted Social Media Space

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Authors: Lorand Bodo, M.A. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

Telegram currently is, for a plethora of reasons, the favorite encrypted social media app employed by ISIS.[1] As such, Telegram has become the subject of deep controversies in the West. While government officials demand for Telegram to store and hand over user information of those promoting terrorism, Telegram’s executives have responded with an adamant refusal to comply.

This conundrum between governments wanting to balance security against encrypted social media executives arguing in behalf of the rights to free speech and surveillance-free communications—particularly in authoritarian regimes—has led researchers at ICSVE to question if it’s possible to assist law enforcement in identifying nefarious users on Telegram without demanding the assistance of the app itself. This article reports on our researchers’ successful attempts to test a few potential approaches that show promise.

Background

There is no doubt that ISIS has been the most successful tech-oriented terrorist organization in history that not only understands how to use the Internet for communication purposes but also has learned to do so while hiding their messaging and identities. ISIS cadres use the surface web, deep web, dark web, social media and encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram, to disseminate their propaganda, recruit new members, inspire or even direct their followers to carry out terror attacks which all cause serious concerns for law enforcement, intelligence and security professionals tasked with staying one step ahead in fighting the group[2]. It bears noting that ISIS also surfaced at a time when social media’s feedback mechanisms were developed enough to allow ISIS to distribute their slick propaganda to global audiences and then hone in on those who show interest. By virtue of a retweet, like, or other endorsement of their products they are able to personally contact those who show interest.[3] In recent years Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other web-based social media apps have cracked down on ISIS’s presence on their platforms making it harder to carry out intensive grooming and recruiting on these web-based apps. This however, resulted in ISIS using fleeting accounts on mainline web-based apps like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to quickly attract the attention of those interested in their propaganda and then migrate potential recruits onto encrypted apps such as Telegram where they may then engage with them on a much more intensive level and for a longer time period without disruption—to motivate and direct some into carrying out actual attacks.

While we can monitor most of ISIS’ activity on the web-based Internet (i.e. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) through web crawlers and search engines, law enforcement and intelligence agencies struggle when it comes to intercepting valuable intelligence that could support in preventing and disrupting terror attacks on messaging apps, such as Telegram that are encrypted and thus prevent such efforts.

In response to these very real security issues, Russia’s FSB (security service) announced on June 26 (2017) that terrorists had used Telegram to coordinate and plan a deadly suicide bombing on Russian soil by providing “terrorists with the opportunity to create secret chats rooms with a high degree of encryption”[4]. As a result, Russian officials increased their pressure upon Telegram to provide security-related information to Russian security services. In response, Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, agreed for his firm to be registered in Russia, but insisted on not sharing any private data with the Russian government, stating that he does not want to undermine the privacy of the six million Russian Telegram users currently registered on the app.[5] Indeed, this is not a simple dilemma, as it pits the rights of free speech and surveillance-free communication in an authoritarian regime against the need for security concerns about potential terrorist attacks. This underlying problem of cooperation between counter-terrorism (CT) officials and any tech-company is what we call the “business-security” dilemma.

The “business-security” dilemma describes a situation, in which tech companies, such as social-media or encrypted messaging apps, have to choose between two options, each that have negative consequences for both parties. Companies that cooperate with law enforcement and intelligence agencies by providing access to private data hopefully address security threats from terrorism, but by doing so, demonstrate their failure to value and protect the privacy and free speech of its users—which is particularly harmful to encrypted social media apps which exist precisely for that purpose. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies also lose if tech-companies cooperate, as many users—both benign and nefarious—will stop using the app and download another. On the other hand, if the social media app executives do not cooperate, bad press inevitably follows, framing the company as a ‘terrorist supporter’. Thus, with either choice—compliance or refusal, the company faces negative consequences, from its customers or the security sector, as does the CT-community.

Social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube face a similar dilemma, costing them time and resources which do not directly support their products in efforts at surveillance and takedowns which may also turn away users. Their dilemma is less severe however, as their apps do not depend solely on being able to provide encrypted communications. In the case of these web-based, open source social media there are also web-crawlers and business applications that could be used by these companies to detect and take down a lot more ISIS content than is currently being taken down at present.[6] And, it should not be forgotten that social media companies are masters in collecting data on users for targeted advertising purposes. Perhaps for them, it would be advisable to use existing technology and modify it to identify violent extremist online propaganda?

Encrypted apps are another story and cannot be crawled in this manner. In either case, extremist content is spreading, versus decreasing, on social media and law enforcement simply can’t keep up while social media companies, for reasons unknown, have not yet opted to use available technologies for more comprehensive and speedy takedowns. As a result, we are failing in countering extremist content online. However, as a recent Guardian article argued: “Counter-terrorism was never meant to be Silicon Valley’s job”.[7]

Moreover, due to growing concerns of consumers about hacking, as well as anxieties raised about government surveillance (particularly following Edward Snowden’s shocking revelations), a large number of mobile phone users have turned to encrypted messaging apps. In 2016, Telegram was downloaded 49,28 million times, followed by Wickr-Me with 3.8 million, Signal with 3.62 million, and other encrypted messaging combined with 0.35 million downloads[8]. When we look at these numbers, we have to ask ourselves, if our citizens value privacy more than they value security from terrorist threats? Do the costs of losing privacy, free speech and surveillance-free communications outweigh the benefits? Indeed, the number of terrorists compared to the vast majority of Telegram (and other encrypted app) users who are benign and have no intention to commit an act of terror is very low. If all Telegram users were in fact terrorists, we should see terror attacks every single day. But, fortunately, we don’t.

Nevertheless, we should not give up on chasing terrorists and shutting down their activities in the encrypted space; but instead of demanding the encrypted apps cooperate with government, it may be more useful to independently develop creative methodologies to gain valuable intelligence on those individuals engaging with and distributing ISIS propaganda as well as recruiting and directing terrorist attacks. In particular, with ISIS relying so heavily on Telegram, we need at present to find ways to fight ISIS without demanding any help of Telegram, whose executive leadership refuses in any case, to release encrypted information needed to fight jihadists using their messaging app. [9]

Identifying Nefarious Telegram Users without the Help of Telegram

So, how can we deal with this very tiny fraction of Telegram users who support and share ISIS content? To this end, we were interested in two questions: first, can we learn if pro-ISIS Telegram users employ information security (InfoSec) measures, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), to protect their identity and if not, are they identifiable? Second, is it possible to identify ISIS endorsing Telegram users communicating via private messaging without any help from Telegram, to make it possible for the law enforcement or intelligence community to do the same?

ISIS, as well as other militant jihadi groups have long been concerned with promoting information security to their members to enable them to evade law enforcement and intelligence. Among the many InfoSec groups ISIS promotes to their members, one known as “Horizon” has published manuals in multiple languages on topics like VPNs, secure browsers and the deep and dark web. In 2015, researchers discovered that ISIS had been using a 34-page operational manual that demonstrates just how tech-savvy ISIS really is. This manual was written in 2014 by a Kuwaiti cyber-security firm for journalists and activists in Gaza, but it was also found in ISIS chat rooms. Topics that are covered range from how to use Twitter, with a focus on protecting identity, to using encrypted Internet browsers and keeping telecommunications private.[10] At ICSVE, our researchers have been monitoring pro-ISIS Telegram channels for quite a while and we have also come across several Telegram channels that serve solely one purpose, namely educating pro-ISIS individuals in information security. Fig.1 shows a screenshot of a pro-ISIS channel that shares free tools, such as anti-virus software or VPN tools on a daily basis. According to Alkhouri, “such advice is what helped many jihadists bypass scrutiny and operate online with ease”.[11]

Given the dissemination of these manuals and ISIS’ intent of educating its followers about the importance of information security, we were keen to test if Telegram users operating in ISIS space actually are actually savvy enough to have implemented these InfoSec measures or if they fail to pay attention. To this end, we conducted a small experiment on Telegram, which was comprised of two approaches. Concerning our methodology, we have decided not to reveal it here as it was used to learn the identities of pro-ISIS Telegram users and we do not wish to further educate them in terms of information security. In this respect, it must be highlighted that this methodology should not be perceived as a ‘silver-bullet’, but more as a ‘cause for thought’ to develop better and more effective approaches. At ICSVE, we strongly believe that any effort to fight ISIS on the digital battleground is better than doing nothing—particularly as ISIS loses territory and increasingly promotes and directs homegrown attacks via the Internet.

The first approach was OSINT-informed and had the objective to identify the social media accounts of pro-ISIS Telegram users that in turn provides us with valuable intelligence about the actual identity of the person and his or her wider network. By employing our techniques, we were able to gain the actual identities of 3 users in a private chatroom, however, we will only highlight one case herein as the method is the same. In this regard, it is also necessary to emphasize that corroborating our results was one of the main challenges of this approach, however, after analyzing the whole case, we were quite confident in our judgements as the evidence was overwhelming.

In the first approach, we focused on private chat rooms as they allow us (not always) to see the actual group members in terms of numbers and profiles. In this case, we explored a private chat room, which primarily disseminates official ISIS propaganda.

In this case, a profile caught our eyes for several reasons (that we don’t explain here as it would reveal our methods). We were keen to find one of the target’s social media accounts which might revel his or her real identity. Generally, we assumed, that even though individuals employ encrypted-messaging apps for privacy for their terrorist-engaging purposes, they still have active social media social media accounts registered in their own real identities. And, in this particular case, we were right).

In fact, we were quite surprised how easy it was to identify this particular Telegram user. However, it should be mentioned that this approach does not work with any Telegram user, but it is definitely worth a try for the purpose of gaining valuable intelligence.

A quick scan of the pictures which were posted on this individual’s Facebook account, reveals more about the individual. Especially the knife picture caught immediately our attention, as in Telegram the same individual was endorsing and sharing violent ISIS propaganda material that causes us to view him as radicalized and potentially considering engaging in violence. To learn if his knife picture was unique to him we searched the same image on the surface web and found out that this picture was posted repeatedly on other websites. In other words, the individual simply copied and pasted the picture, which also implies that the target is most probably not in possession of that particular knife. Yet his Telegram activity makes clear he may be considering enacting violence. To be on the safe side we passed our information, including his identity, on to the relevant security authorities for them to determine whether or not he constitutes an actual terrorist threat.

Our second approach tested whether or not pro-ISIS Telegram users employ information security measures, such as VPNs or a Proxy, to disguise their IP-addresses. We need to emphasize that we were also aware of the fact that individuals could use a Tor browser, public Wi-Fi or similar tools. In these cases, we would not be able to know if the IP address ties to that individual or not. Likewise, we were aware of the fact that identifying someone’s IP address would not give us his or her real name, exact location, or anything like that. In general, we assumed that most individuals use Telegram on a daily basis, meaning that whenever they have time to check out the latest posts, they would use their mobile phones to have a quick look. Furthermore, we assumed that these individuals would probably not use a VPN or Proxy every single time they access Telegram, even if installed, because it often slows down the Internet speed and individuals may just forget about activating the VPN when anxious to view new posts.

With all these assumptions in mind, we again went back to one of the private chat rooms to carry out a small experiment. Our experiment was exploratory in nature as we haven’t come across a similar approach in the literature or on the Internet, however, we are aware that many intelligence agencies have been using the same or similar techniques. Overall, we needed four attempts to gather a sample of three out of all of the 138 group members that we then studied for their use of a VPN or Proxy. From these three individuals, two have not used a VPN or Proxy as in contrast to the third individual who used a Proxy Server (located in Cyprus). In this respect, it is paramount to highlight that these results should be interpreted carefully as the method used is not 100% accurate. Furthermore, those two individuals identified could have also used a Tor Browser or public Wi-Fi, for example. So, how reliable is the method then?

To be on the safe side, we have also used the same method to disguise the IP addresses of friends who use Telegram on a daily basis. We conducted this experiment in three rounds. Round one gave instructions on using a VPN or Proxy. Round two gave instructions on not using any of the InfoSec measures. Round three tested our method in the “Secret Chat” that uses end-to-end encryption, leaves no traces on Telegram servers, has a self-destruct timer and does not allow forwarding, by telling our friends not to use a VPN or Proxy. Overall, we were successful in disguising the IP-addresses (Round 2 and 3) and most importantly, to detect the Proxy or VPN (Round 1). With this in mind, we were confident that our results with the small pro-ISIS sample was similarly successful.

Conclusion

ICSVE’s brief exploratory incursions on Telegram tell us two things. One that it is possible to penetrate ISIS Telegram chat rooms and inside them find the social media accounts, and thus identities, of those who appear to be serious ISIS devotees. Likewise of these we were able to find, we learned that some do not take the precautions of using a VPN or Proxy network, despite ISIS’s instructions to do so. Most surprisingly, we found out that our method even works in the Secret Chat, a special service that makes Telegram so famous for being secure. Our small experiments should be seen as an attempt of exploring and discovering creative ways to identify pro-ISIS Telegram users. Most importantly, we want to demonstrate that there are ways to fight ISIS in encrypted messaging apps, even though Telegram itself is refusing to cooperate.

There is also still the matter of social media giants such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter using available technologies to take ISIS content and accounts down faster so that there is not the opportunity to engage and be seduced off the open source web-based social media into the encrypted social media apps that are harder to track. However our short experiment demonstrates that tracking is possible even when not having Telegram’s cooperation. And this was just the beginning.

Note to readers: Our expertise and methodology is freely available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies upon request.

Reference for this article: Lorand Bodo, M.A. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. (July 15, 2017) Identifying Nefarious Telegram Users without the Help of Telegram Itself: Testing Solutions for Intelligence and Security Professionals in Fighting ISIS in the Encrypted Social Media Space. ICSVE Research Reports. http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/identifying-nefarious-telegram-users-without-the-help-of-telegram-itself-testing-solutions-for-intelligence-and-security-professionals-in-fighting-isis-in-the-encrypted-social-media-space/

 [1] Yayla, Ahmet S and Speckhard, Anne (2017). Telegram: The Mighty Application that ISIS Loves, available at: http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/telegram-the-mighty-application-that-isis-loves/ (29.06.2017)

[2] Callimachi, R. (2017). Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terror-plot.html (29.06.2017).

[3] Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A. & Yayla, A. S. (2016). “Defeating ISIS on the Battle Ground as well as in the Online Battle Space: Considerations of the “New Normal” and Available Weapons in the Struggle Ahead”. Journal of Strategic Security 9, no.4, p.1-10.

[4] Reuters (2017). Russia, Upping Pressure on Telegram App, Says It Was Used to Plot Bombing, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/06/26/technology/26reuters-russia-telegram-security.html (29.06.2017).

[5] Reuters (2017). Telegram App Agrees to Register in Russia, but Not to Share Private Data, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/06/28/technology/28reuters-russia-telegram-security.html (29.06.2017).

[6] See for example: GIPEC (2017). Who we are: GIPEC, available at: http://www.gipec.com/who-we-are/ (30.06.2017).

[7] Solon, O. (2017). Counter-terrorism was never meant to be Silicon Valley’s job. Is that why it’s failing? available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/29/silicon-valley-counter-terrorism-facebook-twitter-youtube-google (29.06.2017).

[8] Roberts, J. J. (2017) Here Are the Most Popular Apps for Secure Messages, available at: http://fortune.com/2017/01/17/most-popular-secure-apps/ (29.06.2017).

[9] The Times (2017). Message app used by Isis refuses to fight jihadists, available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/message-app-used-by-isis-refuses-to-fight-jihadists-jrddv7c93 (30.06.2017)

[10] Murgia, M. (2015). Islamic State uses detailed security manual, revealing its cyber strategy, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet-security/12007170/Islamic-States-detailed-security-manual-reveals-its-cyber-strategy.html (29.06.2017). (You can also find the manual here)

[11] Alkhouri, L. (2017). How Cyber-Jihadists Protect Their Identities and Their Posts, available at: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column/private-sector/how-cyber-jihadists-protect-their-identities-and-their-posts-1092 (29.06.2017).

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The New World Order: The conspiracy theory and the power of the Internet

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“The Illuminati, a mysterious international organisation made up of the world’s top political and social elites, controls the workings of the entire world behind the scenes”. This is the world’s most famous conspiracy theory about the New World Order.

For hundreds of years, legends about the Illuminati have been spread and many people currently believe that the Illuminati still exist. It is believed that the Illuminati operate in various fields such as global politics, military affairs, finance and mass media and control the historical process of the entire world.

The ultimate goal is to establish a New World Order. Nobody can prove it, but many people believe it. This is the greatest paradox about conspiracy theories.

In the 2009 film, Angels and Demons – based on Dan Brown’s best seller of the same name about Professor Langdon, played by Tom Hanks – the story of the Illuminati, who supposedly originated in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, was recalled. There were physicists, mathematicians and astronomers who questioned the “erroneous teachings” of the authority of the Holy See and dedicated themselves to the scientific field of the search for truth.

Eventually, the Illuminati were forced to become a clandestine organisation and have continued to recruit members for hundreds of years to this day. In Angels and Demons, the historical facts are clearly questionable, and the movie appeared after the great economic crisis of 2007-2008.

The New World Order conspiracy theory has been circulating for a long time and is full of mysterious theories that, however, convince many people who are powerless and dissatisfied with the current state of the world.

The Illuminati, who advocate the establishment of a New World Order through the planning of a series of political and financial events (the financial tsunami of 2007-2008 is said to have been planned by the Illuminati), attempt to influence the course of world history, and ultimately establish an authoritarian world government.

Supporters of the New World Order theory believe that even the powerful US government is now just a puppet government. While another “shadow government” made up of a few people makes decisions that will change the fate of the planet.

You might think that all of the above is just crackpot theories. Many people, however, believe this is true. According to a 2013 poll conducted by the Public Policy Polling Foundation, 28% of US voters believe that the New World Order is actually taking hold.

Brian L. Keeley, a professor of philosophy at Pitts College who devotes himself to the study of modern conspiracy theories, believes that an important feature of conspiracy theorists is that they cite some trivial and overlooked incidents and then propose a perfect explanation compared to an embarrassed official response. The reason why the conspiracy theory explanation can be widely disseminated is that it has no argumentation process to deny. It is just a judgement that jumps directly from hypothesis to conclusion. In the argumentation process, it is only a subjective interpretation of the event.

Nevertheless, for the public that does not fully understand the incident, the conspiracy theory provides an “explanation” for the unknown part of the said incident, and this “explanation” cannot be denied (because its very existence is not corroborated by real arguments and facts). It is therefore recognised as a valid argument by many people.

For example, no one has substantial evidence to prove that the Illuminati actually exist, but no one can prove that the Illuminati are purely fictitious. Therefore, you cannot deny their existence because their existence is “perfection without evidence”.

Columnist Martha Gill wrote in The Guardian on the subject, describing the Illuminati as the most enduring conspiracy theory organisation in world history.

“Conspiracy theories relating to the 1969 moon landing mission, the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, etc., are all limited to a specific time and place. But conspiracy theories supporting the existence of the Illuminati can connect them. Anything about these connections, however, is difficult to prove”. In other words, the supporters of conspiracy theories may have common imagination and attribute everything to this organisation, so that every irrational phenomenon in the world can be explained.

Although no one can prove the real existence of the Illuminati, there is actually an alleged “global shadow government” in the world whose name is the Bilderberg Group. The Bilderberg Group holds an annual world-class private meeting and participants include elites from all walks of society such as government, business, media, science and technology.

Known as the “World’s Most Mysterious Conference”, the Bilderberg Group invites various famous political and economic figures to participate in its meetings every year.

Prince Bernhard van Lippe-Biesterfeld (1911-2004) held the first meeting in 1954. As the venue for the meeting was the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, that name was used as the name of the group.

The existence of the Bilderberg Group is not a secret, but the content of the topics discussed at the Conferences is absolutely confidential and mainstream media cannot report on the content of the meetings.

The Bilderberg Group issues a press release every year to introduce the Conference participants and the outline of the topics discussed. Over the years, participants have come from many places, including Prince Philip of Edinburgh (1921-2021) of the British Royal Family, Crown Prince Charles, former British Prime Ministers, French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, former US Presidents Bush and Clinton, and even Bill Gates and other Internet giants. There were also Italians, as reported years ago in a newspaper of our country.

The 2018 Conference was held in Turin, Italy, in June. According to the description on the Bilderberg Group’s official website, the main topics included European populism, the development of artificial intelligence, quantum computer technology and the “post-truth” era. Obviously the actual content and results of the meeting’s discussion have never been reported.

Therefore, the Bilderberg Group has naturally become a locus where conspiracy theorists want to draw material. They describe the Bilderberg Group as true evidence of the theory that a very small number of elites controls the world, and the participants are planning a New World Order.

On the subject of strange things, let us give some examples. In June 2018, the British Royal Family was also caught up in conspiracy theories. When Prince Harry and his wife Meghan attended a show, they were caught on camera motionless, like two stiff and dull robots. Later related clips went viral on the Internet and netizens were in an uproar: many people believed that the distinguished members of the Royal Family were actually robots developed by high technology.

However, the management of the London museum, Madame Tussauds, later explained the mystery by stating that Harry and Meghan were only played by two actors who wore extremely high-realism wax masks on their faces – all to promote an exhibition of wax statues – and inadvertently caused an uproar.

In that short video, Harry and Meghan did not change their facial appearance and their expressions were stiff just like robots. Consequently, conspiracy theorists used this as evidence that they were robots secretly built by the British Royal Family.

This argument is an extension of the ‘trivial evidence’ mentioned above. The argument proponents ignore any argumentation process and directly draw the final conclusion through the above stated “trivial evidence”. This conclusion is highly topical and quite appealing. With the fast spread of the Internet, the “quick truth” will naturally be recognised and sought after by many people.

I think many people still remember the “Mandela effect” that spread wildly across the Internet in the early years as a false memory. The name “Mandela effect” is believed to have come from Fiona Broome, a self-described “paranormal consultant”, who created a website called the “Mandela effect”. Supporters of the ‘Mandela effect’ claim to “remember” that former South African President Mandela died in prison in the 1980s. But in reality, after being released from prison, Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and died in December 2013.

So why should anyone believe this seemingly absurd statement? The Internet has become a support platform for a lot of false content, fake news, as well as unreasonableness and lack of justification. When someone shared that ‘false memory’ with others on the Internet, many people believed it to be true, and even suddenly recalled having that memory: “Mandela died in prison that year”.

As a result, lies inconsistent with facts continue to spread. The lie is repeated thousands of times and many people consider it to be the truth: this learning phase is the first misleading rule on the Internet.

In the Internet era, multidimensional and multiplatform features have generated a number of online “malignancies” of conspiracy theories. Moreover, their dissemination ability is not limited to “believers” only. Since online social media provide a widespread and wide dissemination platform, one passes it onto ten people, ten spread it to a hundred, a hundred to a thousand, and so it goes on in geometric fashion, thus turning a ‘hot’ topic on the Internet into an absolute truth. Those who want to believe are naturally prepared and willing to do so. Moreover, these false opinions on the Internet may even have an impact on the real world.

For example, at the political level, everyone can now comment and participate in the online arena. For politicians to get the right to speak and set the agenda, the key is to rely on the public’s direction on the Internet. The Internet discourse has become the dominant factor of the political storytelling, and not vice versa. The characteristics of social networks are precisely the breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

The Internet is easy to spread among the public and it is exactly the breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

Nowadays, conspiracy theories are enough to influence politics and even political developments. A specific conspiracy theory gains a number of supporters through the Internet that promotes it to become a highly debated topic among the public. Consequently, it enters the real political arena coming from the virtual community and its influence can change the direction of governmental decisions.

Looking at it from another perspective, when conspiracy theories are put on the Internet and continue to proliferate – regardless of whether the Illuminati exist or not – they are enough to establish a New World Order. The real-world public opinions, as well as the composition of opinions and the basis of social discussions are changed, and thus world’s countries, politics and rulers are affected.

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USA and Australia Worry About Cyber Attacks from China Amidst Pegasus Spyware

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Pegasus Spyware Scandal has shaken whole India and several other countries. What will be its fallout no one knows as we know only tip of iceberg. Amidst Pegasus Spyware Scandal USA and Australia both have shown serious concerns about Cyber Attacks on US and Australian interests. Both say that China is hub of malware software and both face millions of such attacks daily.

I am trying to understand why a software is needed to spy on a particular individual when all calls, messages, data, emails are easily accessible from server. In most of cases these servers are located in USA and some cases these are located in host country. In certain sensitive cases Government Agencies have their own server like Central Intelligence Agency and hundreds of other agencies and military establishment world over including India. Now point is who installs those servers.

A couple of years back I had talked to Mr Mike Molloy who is Chief Executive Officer of Orion Global Technologies previously known as Orion SAS. He had explained me how his company installs servers in host countries on request of private or gov bodies. He talks about contract and trust. That means even when a company or Gov buys a server or software for designated uses the “Secrecy” Factor remain on discretion of company which has supplied server or software.

Now  if all data, e-mail, chat, messages, calls are accessible to Gov as per law and technology (Through Server all components of Communication are accessible and thats why  me and you see start seeing call recording of a person even after many years later), I am unable to understand why a Gov will be needing a software to Spy on any one.

Now coming to where Australia and USA wants to carry the whole debate.

Australian Foreign Minister Sen Marise Payne said, “Australian Government joins international partners in expressing serious concerns about malicious cyber activities by China’s Ministry of State Security.

“In consultation with our partners, the Australian Government has determined that China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software to affect thousands of computers and networks worldwide, including in Australia. These actions have undermined international stability and security by opening the door to a range of other actors, including cybercriminals, who continue to exploit this vulnerability for illicit gain”, She further added.

She opined, ”The Australian Government is also seriously concerned about reports from our international partners that China’s Ministry of State Security is engaging contract hackers who have carried out cyber-enabled intellectual property theft for personal gain and to provide commercial advantage to the Chinese Government”.

She warned China by saying, “Australia calls on all countries – including China – to act responsibly in cyberspace.  China must adhere to the commitments it has made in the G20, and bilaterally, to refrain from cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.

On other hand USA’s The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Cybersecurity Advisory on Chinese State-Sponsored Cyber Operations. National Security Advisor said, ”Chinese state-sponsored cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. and allied systems. These actors aggressively target political, economic, military, educational, and critical infrastructure personnel and organizations to access valuable, sensitive data. These cyber operations support China’s long-term economic and military objectives”.

The information in this advisory builds on NSA’s previous release “Chinese State-Sponsored Actors Exploit Publicly Known Vulnerabilities.” The NSA, CISA, and FBI recommended mitigations empower our customers to reduce the risk of Chinese malicious cyber activity, and increase the defensive posture of their critical networks. 

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Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geopolitical blocs

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pakistan-terrorism

Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini  and Varundeep Singh*

On July 14, 2021 a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project (a project which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Minister’s meeting asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from ‘terrorist elements’ and in a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to book. Earlier in April 2021, a car bomb attack took place at Serena hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s Ambassador to Pakistan (four people were killed and twelve were injured)

Wang Yi significantly praised the Ashraf Ghani government, for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country as well as big ticket infrastructural projects can not remain safe if there is no security. Afghanistan also criticized Pakistan for its role in sending 10000 Jihadis to Taliban, this is important in the context of the region’s geopolitics.

 Like all other countries, Beijing and Islamabad, would have expected uncertainty after the US withdrawal of troops but perhaps over estimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.

Importance of Chinese Foreign Minister’s statements

Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan (one of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement)

While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to the changing geopolitics, recent developments would have increased its skepticism vis-à-vis the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Roman Babushkin argued that the Taliban are a reality which needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.

Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, Taliban needed to end violence.

‘that Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of the inclusive government

It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russian President’s Afghanistan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with Taliban a success.

China’s statements subtle warning to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of Ghani indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing (even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw troops).

Can US and China find common ground

 It remains to be seen if Biden who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues reaches out to Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan. Significantly, while US-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and Human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in June 2021. During the meeting Turkey agreed to secure Kabul Airport. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan while commenting on Turkey’s assurance said

‘The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that,’

Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of ‘consequences’ if the Middle Eastern nation increased its troop presence in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China (its prior experience in Afghanistan has made it more cautious and circumspect), and that the Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geo-political blocs and traditional lenses. All major stakeholders in Afghanistan, both within the region and outside, seem to be understandably befuddled by the turn of events. It is not just the US, but even China which would be worried not just from an economic stand point but the overall security implications of the turmoil in Afghanistan. The terror attack in KPK indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from militant groups. Beijing would thus need to be quick to react to the overtures from the Taliban in order to secure its economic assets and lives of Chinese workers in neighbouring Pakistan.

 It is especially important for Washington, Beijing and other important stakeholders in the region to work together for dealing with the near term turbulence as well as long term challenges Afghanistan is likely to face.

*Varundeep Singh is an Independent Policy Analyst.

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