Did Snowden Help al-Qaeda Step up Their Online Game?

The Edward Snowden saga is really two stories in one.  There are the secrets he’s revealed about the extent of the Digital Panopticon, which is of great concern to Americans who are understandably upset about the degree to which they have been spied upon.  (And when the Ruling Class notices the Eye of Sauron glaring at them, by golly, they get filled with bipartisan anger, too!)  And then there’s the way Snowden obtained those secrets, which is both a massive indictment of U.S. internal security, and of Snowden himself.  

Ever since the first days of Wikileaks, I’ve been less than completely enthusiastic for the idea of self-appointed Guardians of Truth deciding who gets to keep what secrets.  There are clearly some secrets a government must be allowed to keep, in order to serve any meaningful role in security at all, from domestic police work to foreign intelligence.  I’ve remarked before that the wikileakers spend most of their energy exposing the secrets of relatively benevolent governments, while leaving the worst global cretins alone, in part because said cretins are willing to torture and kill freelance freedom-of-information activists who get in their way.  This has the net effect of unilaterally disarming the good guys in a contest of terrorism and espionage.  It’s understandable to be outraged at what someone like Snowden reveals, but still get a bad feeling about the long-term damage to intelligence efforts.  If only the malevolent forces of the world are allowed to run effective espionage networks, we’re all in deep trouble.

Case in point: NPR reports the conclusions of a large data firm called Recorded Future that “just months after the Snowden documents were released, al-Qaeda dramatically change the way its operatives interacted online.”  At least three significant upgrades to the terror network’s encryption software were swiftly released after the Snowden story broke, and while some other experts dispute Recorded Future’s conclusions, they seem quite confident that al-Qaeda was both alerted and informed by Snowden’s revelations:

The company brought in a cyber expert, Mario Vuksan, the CEO of Reversing Labs, to investigate the technical aspects of the new software. Vuksan essentially reverse-engineered the 2013 encryption updates and found not only more sophisticated software but also newly available downloads that allowed encryption on cellphones, Android products and Macs.

To put that change into context, for years, al-Qaida has used an encryption program written by its own coders called Mujahideen Secrets. It was a Windows-based program that groups like al-Qaida’s arm in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia used to scramble their communications. American-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki used it, too. Since Mujahideen Secret’s introduction in 2007, there had been some minor updates to the program, but no big upgrades.

[Recorded Future CEO Christopher] Ahlberg thought the fact that the group changed the program months after Snowden’s revelations provided good circumstantial evidence that the former contractor had had an impact — but he wanted to see how much.

As it turns out, Recorded Future and Reversing Labs discovered that al-Qaida didn’t just tinker at the edges of its seven-year-old encryption software; it overhauled it. The new programs no longer use much of what’s known as “homebrew,” or homemade algorithms. Instead, al-Qaida has started incorporating more sophisticated open-source code to help disguise its communications.

“This is as close to proof that you can get that these have changed and improved their communications structure post the Snowden leaks,” Ahlberg said.

Data security experts can thrash out just how much Snowden helped al-Qaeda – I suspect critics will charge this whole report is just a P.R. stunt by Recorded Future – but common sense suggests they must have found some useful information in those documents.  This whole affair is a hideous mess we have not yet seen the end of, in anything from domestic politics to counter-terror efforts.  The latter is especially troubling when you consider just how ludicrously false Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric about al-Qaeda being “decimated and on the run” was.  On the contrary, the terrorists are richer, smarter, better-equipped, and more confident than ever.