Did Snowden Tip Off Al-Qaeda’s Cryptographers?

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 4 2014 @ 5:45pm

The terrorist group and its allies appear to have changed their encryption systems in response to the Snowden leaks, according to a new report by the intelligence firm Recorded Future:

The report concludes that “it’s pretty clear” that there is an “increased pace of innovation in encryption technology by Al-Qaeda post Snowden.” The encryption, the report added, “is based on best practice, off the shelf, algorithms.” What’s more, the latest crypto tools follow other crypto programs terrorists have developed following the Snowden leaks. Recorded Future reported in May that three of the tools were created within five months of The Guardian first publishing the Snowden leaks in June 2013.

Though it’s not quite a “smoking gun”, Jazz Shaw urges anyone who thinks Snowden is an unmitigated hero to read the report:

None of this sounds terribly surprising and likely just serves as confirmation that the terrorists are keenly aware of international news headlines and respond to whatever information they can get accordingly. It’s also worth noting – as another analyst in the story mentions – that this isn’t absolute proof of a causal relationship between the two events. It’s possible that they just felt the software was long past due for an overhaul and would have done it anyway. But that’s relying awfully heavily on coincidence.

Of course, the real questions about the Snowden leaks go unanswered in this report. The fact that they upgraded their software is interesting, but what we still don’t know – and may never know, for obvious reasons – is how much other damage was done. How many agents had to be moved around or removed for protection? How many foreign informants supplying us with information were compromised, or simply disappeared? What opportunities were lost which our intelligence agencies clearly can’t talk about in public?

On the other hand, the jihadists’ new crypto might not make much difference:

Whatever the reason, [Bruce] Schneier says, al-Qaida’s new encryption program won’t necessarily keep communications secret, and the only way to ensure that nothing gets picked up is to not send anything electronically. Osama bin Laden understood that. That’s why he ended up resorting to couriers. Upgrading encryption software might mask communications for al-Qaida temporarily, but probably not for long, Schneier said.

“It is relatively easy to find vulnerabilities in software,” he added. “This is why cybercriminals do so well stealing our credit cards. And it is also going to be why intelligence agencies are going to be able to break whatever software these al-Qaida operatives are using.”