Fighting Today's Crowdsourced Terrorists Demands New Technologies

Hu Yoshida

In the wake of recent terror attacks in San Bernardino, Paris, and Brussels, world leaders are scrambling to find new ways to curb these acts of violence. Since 9/11, the big change we’ve seen is that terrorists are using crowdsourcing, through the Internet and mobile phones, to plan and fund their attacks. One of the tools for combating terrorism has been depriving terrorists of funding, but crowdsourcing use has changed the tactics required to identify potential terrorist activities and cut off funding.

After 9/11, the U.S. implemented the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) to follow the money trail that enabled a terrorist to train in a flight school and live in the U.S. for an extended period of time. TFTP enabled the CIA to track international fund transfers, paying particular attention to Islamic charities. Financial institutions were also required to implement stronger anti-money laundering initiatives under the Patriot Act.

These measures have little effect on denying funding for crowdsourced Jihad. The terrorists in San Bernardino, Paris, and Brussels were self-funded or funded by local supporters using smaller sums of money that would not be detected by money laundering or TFTP.

Critics of Silicon Valley from the national-security community are charging that technology like crypto currency and encrypted cellphones are enabling terrorists to operate undetected. Apple’s refusal to decrypt the San Bernardino terrorist’s cellphone led to the Burr-Feinstein encryption bill, under consideration in Congress, that would require technology firms to decrypt customer’s data at the court’s request. China has already passed an anti-terrorism law that requires decryption on demand. Other governments are requiring controls on crypto currencies like Bitcoin.

These same technologies, however, could help the intelligence community thwart those plotting against us and our allies. The technology behind Bitcoin is blockchain, which replaces the traditional central ledger with a distributed ledger. Blockchain is an authenticated ledger that records digital transactions, but is increasingly used for validating all types of records, like corporate registry information, which is currently siloed by local and offshore jurisdictions. Blockchain would help governments manage business data and identify firms and individuals engaged in illicit activity.

Moyara Ruehsen, points out in a recent Newsweek article that:

“ISIS-affiliated cells in Europe are typically self-funded. Apart from any training the attackers may have had in Syria, the attacks required minimal funding, such as daily expenses and cash to purchase weapons on the black market. Most of the terrorists were legal residents or citizens of the EU, and they were presumably able to raise most of these funds on their own within the EU. Indeed, European law enforcement has found that most of these homegrown cells finance their operations with petty crime including drug dealing, credit card fraud, and forgery. However, even if these cells are receiving minimal funds from abroad, they are still likely to leave financial footprints within the EU. They may withdraw funds from an ATM, use a money service business to wire cash to another city, or even pay cash to set up a post office box.”

All these transactions leave an electronic or video footprint, where we can use the technology of today to ingest, correlate, visualize, and apply pattern recognition and predictive analytics to track and thwart terrorist activities.

Money-laundering technologies are focused on structured data and data warehouses running in financial institutions. More and more transactions are being done outside of the banks, and the data is unstructured, provided by cameras, sensors, and clickstreams. Data lakes can replace data warehouses and correlate structured and unstructured data to provide a 360-degree view of activities. Advanced machine learning tools can identify patterns that can’t be discerned through traditional algorithms. Instead of an analyst feeding a search engine with clues, machine learning tools are capable of absorbing massive amounts of data and learning on the fly.

Instead of criticizing the technology companies and passing laws that may open up more security exposures, like backdoors to encryption technologies, the security community should work with the technology community, become better educated on technologies that are available, and recognize that the old ways of addressing terrorism have to keep up with changing terrorism methods.

The Internet, mobile technology and the Internet of Things are linking together people, places, organisations and objects like never before. For more, see The Hyperconnected Economy.

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Hu Yoshida

About Hu Yoshida

Hu Yoshida is responsible for defining the technical direction of Hitachi Data Systems. Currently, he leads the company's effort to help customers address data life cycle requirements and resolve compliance, governance and operational risk issues. He was instrumental in evangelizing the unique Hitachi approach to storage virtualization, which leveraged existing storage services within Hitachi Universal Storage Platform® and extended it to externally-attached, heterogeneous storage systems. Yoshida is well-known within the storage industry, and his blog has ranked among the "top 10 most influential" within the storage industry as evaluated by Network World. In October of 2006, Byte and Switch named him one of Storage Networking’s Heaviest Hitters and in 2013 he was named one of the "Ten Most Impactful Tech Leaders" by Information Week.