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[liberationtech] <nettime> Leonid Bershidsky: U.S. Surveillance Is Not Aimed at Terrorists (Bloomberg)

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Tue Jun 25 01:12:17 PDT 2013

----- Forwarded message from Patrice Riemens <patrice at> -----

Date: Tue, 25 Jun 2013 09:58:58 +0200
From: Patrice Riemens <patrice at>
To: nettime-l at
Subject: <nettime> Leonid Bershidsky: U.S. Surveillance Is Not Aimed at Terrorists (Bloomberg)
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original to:

U.S. Surveillance Is Not Aimed at Terrorists
By Leonid Bershidsky Jun 24, 2013

The debate over the U.S. government’s monitoring of digital communications
suggests that Americans are willing to allow it as long as it is genuinely
targeted at terrorists. What they fail to realize is that the surveillance
systems are best suited for gathering information on law-abiding citizens.

People concerned with online privacy tend to calm down when told that the
government can record their calls or read their e-mail only under special
circumstances and with proper court orders. The assumption is that they
have nothing to worry about unless they are terrorists or correspond with
the wrong people.

The infrastructure set up by the National Security Agency, however, may
only be good for gathering information on the stupidest, lowest-ranking of
terrorists. The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the
servers of America’s largest Internet companies, which support such
popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services
that truly dangerous elements typically use.

In a January 2012 report titled “Jihadism on the Web: A Breeding Ground
for Jihad in the Modern Age,” the Dutch General Intelligence and Security
Service drew a convincing picture of an Islamist Web underground centered
around “core forums.” These websites are part of the Deep Web, or
Undernet, the multitude of online resources not indexed by commonly used
search engines.

No Data

The Netherlands’ security service, which couldn’t find recent data on the
size of the Undernet, cited a 2003 study from the University of California
at Berkeley as the “latest available scientific assessment.” The study
found that just 0.2 percent of the Internet could be searched. The rest
remained inscrutable and has probably grown since. In 2010, Google Inc.
said it had indexed just 0.004 percent of the information on the Internet.

Websites aimed at attracting traffic do their best to get noticed, paying
to tailor their content to the real or perceived requirements of search
engines such as Google. Terrorists have no such ambitions. They prefer to
lurk in the dark recesses of the Undernet.

“People who radicalise under the influence of jihadist websites often go
through a number of stages,” the Dutch report said. “Their virtual
activities increasingly shift to the invisible Web, their security
awareness increases and their activities become more conspiratorial.”

Radicals who initially stand out on the “surface” Web quickly meet people,
online or offline, who drag them deeper into the Web underground. “For
many, finally finding the jihadist core forums feels like a warm bath
after their virtual wanderings,” the report said.

When information filters to the surface Web from the core forums, it’s
often by accident. Organizations such as al-Qaeda use the forums to
distribute propaganda videos, which careless participants or their friends
might post on social networks or YouTube.

Communication on the core forums is often encrypted. In 2012, a French
court found nuclear physicist Adlene Hicheur guilty of, among other
things, conspiring to commit an act of terror for distributing and using
software called Asrar al-Mujahideen, or Mujahideen Secrets. The program
employed various cutting-edge encryption methods, including variable
stealth ciphers and RSA 2,048-bit keys.

The NSA’s Prism, according to a classified PowerPoint presentation
published by the Guardian, provides access to the systems of Microsoft
Corp. (and therefore Skype), Facebook Inc., Google, Apple Inc. and other
U.S. Internet giants. Either these companies have provided “master keys”
to decrypt their traffic - - which they deny -- or the NSA has somehow
found other means.

Traditional Means

Even complete access to these servers brings U.S. authorities no closer to
the core forums. These must be infiltrated by more traditional
intelligence means, such as using agents posing as jihadists or by
informants within terrorist organizations.

Similarly, monitoring phone calls is hardly the way to catch terrorists.
They’re generally not dumb enough to use Verizon. Granted, Russia’s
special services managed to kill Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar
Dudayev with a missile that homed in on his satellite-phone signal. That
was in 1996. Modern-day terrorists are generally more aware of the
available technology.

At best, the recent revelations concerning Prism and telephone
surveillance might deter potential recruits to terrorist causes from using
the most visible parts of the Internet. Beyond that, the government’s
efforts are much more dangerous to civil liberties than they are to
al-Qaeda and other organizations like it.

(Leonid Bershidsky is an editor and novelist based in Moscow. The opinions
expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at
bershidsky at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at
mwhitehouse1 at

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