Is the U.S. Hopelessly Outclassed in the Cyber War Against ISIS?
Policy + Politics

Is the U.S. Hopelessly Outclassed in the Cyber War Against ISIS?

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

It’s not often a leading Democratic senator rips the commander in chief publicly over a policy dispute. But that’s what Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, did yesterday when she contradicted President Obama’s claim that “ISIL is contained.”

Like other lawmakers in both parties, along with security chiefs sworn to keep America safe, Feinstein is worried not only about the administration’s minimalist strategy in dealing with ISIS, ISIL, Daesh or whatever one wants to call the terror group – most of which can’t be published here – but about how the U.S. can stop an attack on the homeland when the enemy communicates using “dark” technologies.

Feinstein is referring to messaging apps like Facebook’s WhatsApp, Telegram, Wickr and Apple’s iMessage, all of which are encrypted so that the messages can’t be captured and monitored. Some of them actually disappear after they’re opened and read. Feinstein and another ally, CIA director John Brennan, want to restore the government’s ability to monitor the digital chatter of ISIS and other terror groups by having a back door opened to apps that have end-to-end encryption.

Would that help? Not according to an article in Scientific American, which cites security analysts who say it wouldn’t work. “Encryption is just math, and there are dozens of open-source encryption packages. There’s no way you could stop it,” Matthew Green, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, told Scientific American.

ISIS has shown its technological prowess from the start. The high production values of their effective marketing videos, their use of social media, and their ability to find and possibly customize existing open source media to serve their needs has been a challenge for U.S. government officials who don’t exactly have stellar records in the technology wars.

Last year, The Fiscal Times compared Facebook’s photo tagging system with the FBI’s billion dollar facial recognition system — the one that’s supposed to ID the bad guys. The test was done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech trade group, which found the FBI’s system was accurate only 85 percent of the time compared with Facebook’s system that works 97 percent of the time.

In one case, the FBI’s facial recognition system matched a suspect’s photo with the wrong name one in seven times.

The FBI story is still a good result compared with, say, — the billion dollar website that never worked well and cost taxpayers a bundle. Or the IRS’s inability to keep millions of taxpayers’ Social Security numbers from being stolen. Or how about the Office of Management and Budget letting the personal information of 25 million federal workers be hijacked by hackers?

A few examples of federal I.T. expertise:

  • A failed electronic health record program that was supposed to allow the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs to share files. DOD canceled it when the cost of the program was projected to top $28 billion. The original system was supposed to cost $1 billion.
  • The Virtual Case File System, for which the FBI paid contractors $170 million. The bureau eventually decided the program as conceived would never work -- and canceled the contract.
  • The Secure Border Initiative, which was supposed to create a virtual fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Homeland Security canceled it after spending $1 billion on just 53 miles of fence. The entire border is 1,954 miles.
  • The Business Modernization Program, launched by the IRS in the 1980s. The program’s goal was to help the IRS manage files. More than 20 years and $7 billion later, it's still not done.
  • The Kinetic Energy Interceptor, an anti-ballistic missile system that would take down enemy rockets early in flight; Northrup Grumman was the contractor. After the DOD spent $1.2 billion on it, the Obama administration canceled the program because it simply didn't work.

Yet, there may still be hope for defeating an ISIS plot, if the U.S. wants to count on the hacker group Anonymous to jump in and save the day. A piece in The Guardian published a tweet from the group…

…and translated this video from the French: “You, the vermin who kill innocent victims, we will hunt you down like we did those who carried out the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.” 

The Guardian also reported that Binary Sec, another group of hacktivists, will join the online fight against ISIS.

“We as a collective will bring an end to your reign of terror. We will no longer turn a blind eye to your cruel and inhumane acts of terrorism towards all other religions that are not Islam. We’ve watched you behead innocent people, kidnap and murder children, and then launch terrorist attacks in France. This will NOT BE TOLERATED ANY LONGER.

“We here at BinarySec live for the sole purpose of bringing down All ISIS Propaganda ONE website and/or person at a time. ISIS … Your Jihad is coming to an abrupt end. We here at BinarySec will be one of the driving forces to your end and that’s a promise. ISIS… The War Is On.”