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Militants plan terror in chat rooms shocker

Electronic Jihad scare to get law enforcers greater Net monitoring powers

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Islamic terrorists are using the Internet bulletin boards to exchange information and plan act of terror and revenge, according to a report in today's edition of USA Today.

After speaking to US law enforcement agencies and security experts the paper has come up with the conclusion that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are hiding maps and photographs within encrypted messages to sports chat rooms or pornographic bulletin boards.

Terrorist activities are also posted on unnamed Web sites. Of course the obvious question here is what are these sites and bulletin boards (there certainly isn't a newsgroup called alt.sex.death.to.america). Does Osama bin Laden have a secret interest in curling chat rooms and is he more likely to frequent the rough-and-tumble Ice Hockey chat rooms? But we digress.

Balancing our natural scepticism about the report is the idea that using newsgroups as modern-day dead-letter drops does seem to make a modicum of sense.

The main evidence USA Today has for its report is testimony in a closed-door hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and made public later, which doesn't say much more than "terrorists use the Internet (and encryption)".

"To a greater and greater degree, terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and bin Laden's al Qaida group, are using computerised files, email and encryption to support their operations," CIA Director George Tenet wrote last March to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This is supported by the assertion that bin Laden began using encryption five-years ago, and has recently stepped up his use of the technology after it was revealed his satellite telephone calls were being taped.

The paper also quotes Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, who said: "We will use whatever tools we can - emails, the Internet - to facilitate Jihad against the (Israeli) occupiers and their supporters."

Then we get to the real point of the story, based on talking to unnamed officials the paper concludes that terrorists' messages are "scrambled using free encryption programs set up by groups that advocate privacy on the Internet".

Observers who have followed the progress of the UK's RIP Act or similar US attempts to seek more wide-ranging powers to monitor Internet Web sites and email will recognise this as a familiar argument from the law enforcement community. The article extends the argument that in the fight against terrorism the right to privacy on the Internet is secondary to the needs of law enforcement, and whatever your political opinions on the issue, the article should be read in that light. ®

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USA Today story: "Terror groups hide behind Web encryption"

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