FBI eyes data on mes­sage apps

Is­lamic State uses en­crypted texts to re­cruit mem­bers. The gov­ern­ment seeks ac­cess from tech firms.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Bennett

WASH­ING­TON — Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and their fol­low­ers have dis­cov­ered an un­nerv­ing new com­mu­ni­ca­tions and re­cruit­ing tool that has stymied U.S. counter-ter­ror­ism agen­cies: in­stant mes­sag­ing apps on smartphones that en­crypt the texts or de­stroy them al­most im­me­di­ately.

In many cases, U.S. in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies can’t read the mes­sages in real time, or even later with a court or­der, be­cause the phone com­pa­nies and the app de­vel­op­ers say they can’t un­lock the coded text and don’t re­tain a record of the ex­changes.

“We’re past go­ing dark in cer­tain in­stances,” said Michael B. Stein­bach, the FBI’s top counter-ter­ror­ism of­fi­cial. “We are dark.”

The hole in U.S. surveil-

lance ca­pa­bil­i­ties was not men­tioned dur­ing the re­cent con­gres­sional battle over the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency’s bulk col­lec­tion of U.S. land­line and cell­phone data. Law­mak­ers ul­ti­mately agreed to scale back that pro­gram be­cause of con­cerns it vi­o­lated Amer­i­cans’ pri­vacy.

FBI of­fi­cials now want Congress to ex­pand their author­ity to tap into mes­sag­ing apps such as What­sApp and Kik, as well as data-destroying apps such as Wickr and Surespot, that hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple — and ap­par­ently some mil­i­tants — have em­braced pre­cisely be­cause they guar­an­tee se­cu­rity and anonymity.

The FBI es­ti­mates that 200,000 peo­ple around the world see in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated “ter­ror­ist mes­sag­ing” each day from Is­lamic State zealots via di­rect ap­peals, videos, in­struc­tion man­u­als and other ma­te­rial posted on mil­i­tant Is­lamist so­cial me­dia sites.

The group’s re­cruiters then troll Twit­ter, Face­book and other sites to see who is re-post­ing their mes­sages and in­vite them to text di­rectly on en­crypted or data-destroying apps. That’s where FBI agents fear they will miss cru­cial clues about po­ten­tial plots.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have seen Is­lamic State re­cruiters in­crease their use of en­crypted apps over the last sev­eral months, two se­nior law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said.

But de­tails of cases in which the tech­nol­ogy was used have been kept se­cret be­cause in­ves­ti­ga­tors didn’t want po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists to know about the blind spot. The is­sue came to light in a con­gres­sional hear­ing last week.

Dur­ing re­cent ter­ror­ism pros­e­cu­tions, FBI agents have taken steps to pre­vent in­for­ma­tion about the gap from be­ing re­leased pub­licly in court doc­u­ments, said the of­fi­cials, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the mat­ter.

The is­sue has cre­ated an­other tense stand­off be­tween na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials and so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies re­luc­tant to change their soft­ware and pro­vide more ac­cess to law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

In a June 1 speech, Tim Cook, chief ex­ec­u­tive at Ap­ple, fiercely de­fended its de­ci­sion to en­crypt the con­tent of Facetime and iMes­sage com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He took aim at gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who have asked Ap­ple and other com­pa­nies to cre­ate a back­door key to en­crypted mes­sages.

“Let me be crys­tal clear,” Cook said. “Weak­en­ing en­cryp­tion or tak­ing it away harms good peo­ple that are us­ing it for the right rea­sons. And ul­ti­mately, I be­lieve it has a chill­ing ef­fect on our 1st Amend­ment rights and un­der­mines our coun­try’s found­ing prin­ci­ples.”

Cook spoke through a re­mote video feed at the an­nual awards din­ner for the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, a watch­dog group based in Wash­ing­ton.

At a con­gres­sional hear­ing Wed­nes­day, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair­man of the House Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee, said Kik, What­sApp, Wickr and Surespot are among the mes­sag­ing apps that ex­trem­ists are us­ing to avoid de­tec­tion. Ex­ec­u­tives from those four com­pa­nies did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment Fri­day.

“Th­ese tac­tics are a sea change for spread­ing ter­ror, and they re­quire from us a par­a­digm shift in our counter-ter­ror­ism, in­tel­li­gence and our op­er­a­tions,” McCaul said. He did not cite spe­cific cases in which mil­i­tants used those apps to evade in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Stein­bach, the FBI’s counter-ter­ror­ism chief, said at the hear­ing that the FBI wants to be able to take a court or­der to a com­pany and re­quest ac­cess to ei­ther stored text mes­sages or con­tin­u­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions in ter­ror­ism cases.

“We’re talk­ing about go­ing be­fore the court… with ev­i­dence, a bur­den of proof, prob­a­ble cause, sug­gest­ing a crime has been com­mit­ted or, in our case, that there’s a ter­ror­ist,” he said. “We’re not look­ing at go­ing through a back door or be­ing ne­far­i­ous.”

Public de­mand for apps that guar­an­tee se­cu­rity and anonymity is grow­ing, in part in re­sponse to leaks by Ed­ward Snow­den, the for­mer NSA con­trac­tor who dis­closed the gov­ern­ment’s bulk col­lec­tion of emails, phone records and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Se­cure apps are popular with ex­ec­u­tives con­cerned about the threat of cor­po­rate es­pi­onage, hu­man rights ac­tivists op­er­at­ing in au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­tries, and teenagers sim­ply seek­ing to evade their par­ents.

Kik, based in Water­loo, Canada, claims more than 200 mil­lion users world­wide, in­clud­ing, it says, 40% of Amer­i­can youths. An eight­page “Guide to Law En­force­ment” on Kik’s web­site states, “The text of Kik con­ver­sa­tions is ONLY stored on the phones of Kik users in­volved in the con­ver­sa­tion. Kik doesn’t see or store chat mes­sage text in our sys­tems, and we don’t ever have ac­cess to this in­for­ma­tion.”

Those fea­tures can frus­trate law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence au­thor­i­ties try­ing to track sus­pected ter­ror­ists and spies.

“It is im­por­tant for those who are pro­vid­ing the ser­vices to un­der­stand what the threats are and to be re­spon­si­ble,” John Car­lin, head of na­tional se­cu­rity for the Jus­tice Depart­ment, said in an in­ter­view.

U.S. of­fi­cials have racked up no­table suc­cesses us­ing less re­stric­tive so­cial me­dia plat­forms to help iden­tify and find ter­ror­ism sus­pects.

The FBI has ar­rested nearly 40 al­leged sup­port­ers and sym­pa­thiz­ers of Is­lamic State since last sum­mer on sus­pi­cion of seek­ing to join ter­ror­ist groups or giv­ing them ma­te­rial sup­port.

The “vast, vast ma­jor­ity” had a con­nec­tion to so­cial me­dia, Car­lin said.

Two re­cent cases proved deadly. On Tues­day, an FBI agent and a Bos­ton po­lice of­fi­cer shot and killed a 26year-old for­mer se­cu­rity guard in Roslin­dale, Mass., af­ter he al­legedly lunged at them with a knife. The FBI had been track­ing his on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Is­lamic State for at least sev­eral days.

A month ear­lier, two armed men were shot and killed as they sought to attack a car­toon con­test in Gar­land, Texas, to draw the prophet Muham­mad. The FBI had in­ves­ti­gated one of the men for his on­line mes­sages with the mil­i­tant group.

And in at least one re­cent case, a so­cial me­dia post ex­posed an Is­lamic State tar­get to U.S. war­planes.

Air Force an­a­lysts at Hurl­burt Field, Fla., re­cently helped oblit­er­ate a com­mand cen­ter in Syria af­ter a mil­i­tant re­vealed enough in­for­ma­tion on­line to give away his po­si­tion.

“The [air­men are] comb­ing through so­cial me­dia and they see some mo­ron stand­ing at this com­mand,” Gen. Her­bert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Com­bat Com­mand at Lan­g­ley Air Force Base, Va., said in a speech on June 1, ac­cord­ing to Air Force Times. “And in some so­cial me­dia, open fo­rum, brag­ging about com­mand and con­trol ca­pa­bil­i­ties for [Is­lamic State]. And th­ese guys go, ‘Ah, we got an in.’

“So they do some work. Long story short, about 22 hours later through that very build­ing, three [‘smart’ bombs] take that en­tire build­ing out,” he said.

Stan Honda AFP/Getty Images

FBI OF­FI­CIALS want Congress to ex­pand their author­ity to tap into in­stant mes­sag­ing apps.

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