"The Internet is much more useful for jihadists as a propaganda, radicalisation and communication tool,"Jeremy Binnie says. "As with so many other minority interest activities, it allows like-minded but geographically dispersed individuals to form their own little online society where they can share information and re-enforce each other's extreme beliefs. Networks and cells can also use it as a relatively secure means to communicate operational instructions, as we have seen in several cases."
Planning attacks with Google
Could apparently inoffensive information become a terrorist tool? It seems so. The abortive 2007 attack on JFK airport made extensive use of Google Maps and Google Earth, and insurgents in Iraq have used the same software to plan attacks on British forces. "A good example of jihadist use of Google Earth was the attack on foreign oil contractors in Algeria on 10 December 2006," Jeremy Binnie says. "The local
Al-Qaeda branch (AQ in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, or GSPC as it was called at the time of the attack) subsequently put out a sophisticated video that featured operatives using Google Earth to plan the attack. This could have been staged for propaganda purposes, but I don't doubt that Google Earth would be an extremely useful operational planning tool, especially for complex multi-mode and indirect fire attacks."
As Binnie points out, the software "would save the attackers time developing accurate maps and models so that different units know where they are supposed to be and where everyone else is. While the publicly available imagery is out of date, and therefore of little short-term intelligence value, it would also be useful for ranging mortars and rockets against long-standing facilities."
The US military clearly agrees – in March 2008, the Pentagon asked Google to remove a number of military bases from its database – but it seems the UK military and security services are more relaxed, with Google Maps providing detailed satellite imagery of installations including GCHQ, submarine bases, armaments depots and chemical warfare research centres.
Somebody's watching me
Mapping software has another potential downside: it's a superb tool for stalkers, particularly when you combine it with other sources of information found online, such as the electoral roll – or even profiles on social networking sites. You can go as far as tracking people's movements through their mobile phone, although such services do send occasional text messages to remind the phone user that they're being monitored.
That's not always the case, though: in May it emerged that a number of shopping centres were tracking the movements of shoppers without their knowledge or consent. The Times reported: "The technology can tell when people enter a shopping centre, what stores they visit, how long they remain there, and what route they take as they walked around."
The tracking technology, FootPath, is supplied by Path Intelligence Ltd, who says that "there's absolutely nothing personal in the data." The tracking uses mobile phones' IMEI serial numbers, which only the phone networks can correlate with individuals' details.
However, as Spy blog points out, "if you read the last section of the list of claimed benefits for the FootPath product, they admit that it's capable of identifying individuals." These benefits include identifying "unauthorised individuals in 'no go' areas" and identifying "suspicious 'left' luggage." Spyblog asks: "How is it possible to do this with truly anonymous data?"
Should we worry? "If you are exceptionally paranoid then you should probably never use the net and not carry a mobile phone," says Graham Cluley. "However, if you're working at that level of paranoia then it would probably make sense never to walk the streets at all in case a CCTV camera catches you on film.
The advantages of the net and mobile communications in my mind far outweigh the dangers. That doesn't mean that people shouldn't be careful – but they need to keep the relative dangers in proportion." As Cluley notes, for most of us the biggest risk online isn't cyber stalking: it's exposing ourselves to identity theft.
So is technology making the world a more dangerous place? "Probably," says Binnie – but not for the reasons you might think. "It brings like-minded people together, whether they are jihadist, identity fraudsters or paedophiles. However, we have yet to see clear evidence of effective terrorist weapons being developed only with information from the Internet."
As Binnie points out, there's an important flip side. "From a law enforcement point of view, downloaded information has become increasingly important in the prosecution of terrorists in the UK. The Internet has also become an invaluable intelligence tool. Independent organisations such as Jane's now have the ability to pool large amounts of open-source information, conduct research on jihadist websites and use satellite imagery to understand and explain any given situation to our subscribers. The Internet has empowered terrorism analysis as well as the terrorists."
Graham Cluley agrees. "Whilst the Internet has introduced some new dangers and challenges, it has also made the world a better place to live," he says. "We need to learn how to live safely in the online world, and how to best reduce the risks of coming to harm."