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[SOLVED] On the Open Internet, a Web of Dark Alleys


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      Dec 20th, 04, 11:41 PM

On the Open Internet, a Web of Dark Alleys

The indictment early this month of Mark Robert Walker by a federal grand
jury in Texas might have seemed a coup for the government in its efforts to
police terrorist communications online. Mr. Walker, a 19-year-old student,
is accused, among other things, of using his roommate's computer to
communicate with - and offer aid to - a federally designated terrorist
group in Somalia and with helping to run a jihadist Web site.

"I hate the U.S. government," is among the statements Mr. Walker is said to
have posted online. "I wish I could have been flying one of the planes on
Sept. 11."

By international terror standards, it was an extremely low-level bust. But
the case, which was supposedly broken only after Mr. Walker's roommate
tipped off the police, highlights the near impossibility of tracking
terrorist communications online.

Even George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, speaking
on the vulnerabilities of the nation's computer networks at a technology
security conference on Dec. 1, noted the ability of terrorists to "work
anonymously and remotely to inflict enormous damage at little cost or risk
to themselves." He called for a wholesale taming of cyberspace.

"I know that these actions would be controversial in this age where we
still think the Internet is a free and open society with no control or
accountability," Mr. Tenet said, "But, ultimately, the Wild West must give
way to governance and control."

Even if the government is able to shore up its networks against attack -
one of many goals set forth by the intelligence reform bill passed last
week - the ability of terrorists and other dark elements to engage in
covert communications online remains a daunting security problem, and one
that may prove impossible to solve.

Late last month, an Internet privacy watchdog group revealed that the
Central Intelligence Agency had contributed money for a counterterrorism
project that promised, among other things, an automated surveillance system
to monitor conversations on Internet chat rooms. Developed by two computer
scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., as part of a
National Science Foundation program called Approaches to Combat Terrorism,
the chat room project takes aim at the possibility that terrorists could
communicate through crowded public chat channels, where the flurry of
disconnected, scrolling messages makes it difficult to know who is talking
to whom. The automated software would monitor both the content and timing
of messages to help isolate and identify conversations..............

Shortly after Sept. 11, questions swirled around steganography, the age-old
technique of hiding one piece of information within another. A digital
image of a sailboat, for instance, might also invisibly hold a communiqué,
a map or some other hidden data. A digital song file might contain
blueprints for a desired target.

But the troubling truth is that terrorists rarely have to be technically
savvy to cloak their conversations. Even simple, prearranged code words can
do the job when the authorities do not know whose e-mail to monitor or
which Web sites to watch. Interviews conducted by Al Jazeera, the Arab
television network, with the terror suspects Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and
Ramzi bin al-Shibh two years ago (both have since been arrested), suggested
that the Sept. 11 attackers communicated openly using prearranged code
words. The "faculty of urban planning," for instance, referred to the World
Trade Center. The Pentagon was the "faculty of fine arts.".............

At one Web site,, a user can type in a phrase like "Meet me
at Joe's" and have that message automatically converted into a lengthy bit
of prose that reads like a spam message: "Dear Decision maker; Your e-mail
address has been submitted to us indicating your interest in our briefing!
This is a one-time mailing there is no need to request removal if you won't
want any more," and so forth.

The prose is then pasted into an e-mail message and sent. A recipient
expecting the fake spam message can then paste it into the site's decoder
and read the original message.......

In one plan envisioned by Mr. Hinnen in his law review article, a group
need only provide the same user name and password to all of its members,
granting them all access to a single Web-based e-mail account. One member
simply logs on and writes, but does not send, an e-mail message. Later, a
co-conspirator, perhaps on the other side of the globe, logs on, reads the
unsent message and then deletes it.

"Because the draft was never sent," Mr. Hinnen wrote, the Internet service
provider "does not retain a copy of it and there is no record of it
traversing the Internet - it never went anywhere." The message would be
essentially untraceable.............
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