Privacy, Public Safety Collide as Terror Groups Collaborate on Social Media

Following a coordinated attack in Paris on Nov. 13, some are asking whether law enforcement should have access to encrypted social network platforms, like Telegram, allegedly used for terrorist planning purposes.

by / November 20, 2015

The terror attack in Paris last week sparked a renewed debate over how to intercept terrorist networks communicating via protected social media platforms. 

In the aftermath of the coordinated attack that left at least 129 people dead, applications like Telegram are being criticized by some for providing an alleged venue for terrorist collaboration.

While others argue digital backdoors into these networks would not end — or even stall — the activities of terror groups, critics say the popular communication networks are an all too valuable tool for groups like the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL). 

In a September interview with TechCrunch, Pavel Durov, the creator of Telegram, acknowledged that the radicalized Islamic group was in fact using the service to communicate.

Durov said that although the group is active on the popular open-source messaging service, the free speech rights of all app users took precedent.

“ … I think that privacy ultimately, and the right for privacy, is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism. And if you look at ISIS, yes, there is a war going on in the Middle East, it’s a series of tragic events, but ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves and if any means of communication is not secure for them, they’ll switch to another one,” he told TechCrunch.

He went on to say that he feels Telegram is doing the right thing by protecting the privacy of its users through message encryption and said there were no plans to ban ISIS-related bots on the network.

That tune changed significantly when the company announced the removal of 78 ISIS-related public channels Wednesday and another 168 channels Thursday. Telegram said the channels were distributing “terrorist propaganda.”

Some on Twitter immediately accused the social network of monitoring conversations, but Durov clarified that all of the channels that were removed from the Telegram network were public and were not the protected, private channels. 

“Our policy is simple: privacy is paramount. Public channels, however, have nothing to do with privacy. ISIS public channels will be blocked,” Durov tweeted Thursday. 

“To media covering us this week: Telegram channels are public broadcasts. They are the opposite of private chats. Please don't mix the two,” he wrote in another tweet.

 

Just Monday, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan alluded to the technological challenges facing intelligence and security agencies, and the need for more cooperation from the private sector when it comes to rooting out terrorist networks online.

During a speech at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Global Security Forum earlier this week, Brennan focused many of his remarks on technology.

“And finally, the rapid advance of information technology has given rise to an entirely new and open domain for human interaction and progress: the cyber realm,” he said. “As an intelligence officer, much of my job involves dealing with the unintended consequences of the cyber revolution. For as much as it brings the world together, it also serves the purpose of those who wish to do us harm.”

The intelligence agency head said the advent and prominence of social media and the “cyber realm” has allowed for small groups and individuals to “inflict damage on a scale previously restricted to nation states.” 

He called for better information sharing between international partners and private companies, saying programmatic, legal and privacy issues had hampered intelligence efforts to this point.

“As our country deals with this issue and specifically the security and privacy concerns that revolve around information sharing, it is important to note that security and privacy are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “The benefits of improved information sharing can be achieved in a manner that protects privacy and civil liberties.”

The CIA director said recent unauthorized disclosures had also presented challenges to security and intelligence gathering efforts.

“In the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of hand-wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability to collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging,” he said.

Brennan called the recent advancement of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, passed by the U.S. Senate in late October, an important step forward in the efforts. 

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.