It’s been clear for several years now that terrorist groups such as ISIS have mastered the realm of technology, and have utilised various online platforms and social media hubs to boost their sinister cause and recruit members. While mega-mammoth social media giants, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, are effectively cracking down on terrorist activity on their networks, less popular chat apps are having a harder time immunising their platforms against terrorists.
In a Wired op ed, executive Director and founder of SITE Intelligence Group Rita Katz expounds on ISIS’ most recent attempt to establish an online presence in order to spike up recruitment and facilitate communication following its significant territory losses in Syria and Iraq last year. According to Katz, the terrorist group has resorted to using encrypted messenger apps primarily intended for businesses and gamers after numerous failed attempts to launch web pages on sites like Tumblr and WordPress. The fairly new apps, Katz argues, have proved to be an efficient alternative for terrorist groups, particularly due to the platforms’ social media-like modeling and rudimentary security systems.
While Telegram appears to constitute ISIS’ primary media hub, other similar apps seem to be penetrated and utilised by the group. RocketChat, an open-source messenger service, has become an increasingly popular arena for ISIS-linked media groups to both coordinate terror attacks and further disseminate information originally posted on Telegram. Katz claims that as of January 2019, there were 700 registered users on RocketChat’s server that were linked to ISIS’ channels.
Furthermore, in the past two months alone, ISIS has made successful attempts to expand its virtual media networks into messenger apps such as Yahoo Together (a recent replacement of Yahoo Messenger), Viber, and Discord (a messaging app for gamers). Content found on such apps revealed, among other things, conversations between ISIS members who were planning attacks around Christmas in major Western cities.
In her article, Katz contends that ISIS is currently “testing the water” on such apps—seeing how long they manage to maintain their activities there before they’re flagged or blocked. She further mentions that terrorist groups are taking advantage of the relatively boundless discussion environments such apps foster, and the great difficulty they face in sifting through and identifying adverse content. The messenger apps’ response, Katz argues, will be crucial in determining “where terrorist groups migrate next.”
Spotting and removing terrorist activity on such platforms may prove ever more challenging for messenger apps such as Telegram and RocketChat; while some ISIS linked channels do little to hide their identity, flaunting usernames such as ‘Just Terror”, others camouflage better. Furthermore, it will undoubtedly be trickier to spot groups of ‘sympathisers’ of terrorists (be it Islamic extremists or white nationalist), whose conversations may or may not escalate to discourse bearing potentially dangerous ramifications.
The greatest challenge regarding terrorist groups’ online presence is that their activity will not be extinguished by censorship, but simply migrate elsewhere. The internet (at this moment in time at least), constitutes a free space with virtually limitless opportunities to spread information. Thus, once one platform or channel is blocked, numerous others sprout to replace them. It is true of terrorists and hate groups just as it is of our beloved streaming websites, porn hubs, or anything, for that matter.
The only solution that comes to mind is a global, federation-like body that will be tasked with maintaining order online and removing content deemed perilous.
No doubt Putin is working hard to make this far-fetched dream a reality for us all.
When the first 3D printers appeared, people daydreamed about creating their own furniture, some went as far as 3D-printing whole villages, but very few expected the technology would add to the U.S.’ gun problem—and yet here we are. In 2012, Cody Wilson created Defence Distributed, a 3D-printing gun company, considered by many to be the driving force behind this niche industry. In September 2018, Wilson was arrested and charged with sexual assault against a minor, forcing him to step down from the company.
Defence Distributed ended up dying slowly after that, but not without a bang. The company still has many other ongoing legal battles. Why? Because it uploaded and shared 3D-printed gun blueprints online, enabling anyone who has a 3D printer to own a gun—which is now illegal in the U.S. if the gun is fully made of plastic, making it invisible to metal detectors. Last year, when Defence Distributed was submerged by lawsuits left, right, and centre, everyone—the American government included—eased up. The headquarters were shut down, and the leader put behind bars. What could go wrong now?
What if there was no headquarters, no trademarks, and no real leader? Then the government would be unable to trace back to the gun blueprints. That’s exactly the idea that Defence Distributed’s substitute company had. Named Deterrence Dispensed, it uploads files individually on media-hosting sites underpinned by the LBRY blockchain—meaning decentralised platforms owned by its users. Not only are the members of Deterrence Dispensed not waiting for any government’s approval of their blueprints, but they’re also modifying old ones and offering customers more choice.
In an interview with Wired, a member of the group known as ‘Ivan the Troll’ explained how Deterrence Dispensed is more than a big fuck you to the U.S. government, saying, “Even if there was no government telling me I couldn’t do this, I think that I would still do it. I like spending hours and hours drawing stuff on Computer-Aired Design (CAD).” Ivan the Troll does more than “drawing stuff” though, he creates gun designs, adding to the threat that guns already are in America.
3D-printed guns are made of plastic, meaning they’re also a single-shot, disposable device that really can only be fired once, and if not printed perfectly, could potentially misfire and cause injury to the shooter himself. Printers are starting to experiment with metallic parts, but we’re still far from being able to download a file for any kind of gun and just press a button, and let the printer do its job. That’s exactly the reasoning that pro-gun supporters have, but plastic or not, a gun is still a gun.
Mass shootings, gun-related deaths, terrorist attacks… Do we really need more guns, especially in the U.S.? To support his argument, Ivan mentioned the many police shootings of unarmed black men in America, implying that if you can get shot by the police for no reason, you should also own a gun. But a research from Harvard University shows that where there are more guns, there are more murders—simple as that. Sorry Judge Jeneane.
Apart from Deterrence Dispensed, there are thousands more 3D-printed gun enthusiasts worldwide, doing exactly the same, on a smaller scale. There is no way to stop this file-sharing disease. So where do we go from there? We need to talk about gun violence, and why this can’t be our new normal—in the U.S. or anywhere else. The clear uncertainness that surrounds the gun discussion is what blocks it from going somewhere. Then again, some might argue that guns are not the problem, people are.