FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hacking for Homeland Security

Ever since 9/11, "freelance counterterrorists" have been scouring the Net, searching for websites run by Islamic extremists and attempting to knock them offline. Some, like Aaron Weisburd, who was profiled in a recent Newsweek article on the subject, have been highly successful. Weisburd claims to have taken down more than 700 such sites over the past four years.

In general, authorities frown on such vigilante actions, fearing that they will disrupt ongoing investigations, and noting (correctly) that law enforcement is the job of law enforcement agencies. But the problem is that extremists and terrorists -- like the group allied with Iraqi insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which posted video of the beheading of Nicholas Berg in early 2004 -- are becoming ever more sophisticated in their use of the Net.

The use of the Internet by digital jihadists represents a vicious cycle: as one website of theirs gets hacked, another site emerges, more elusive to attackers than before. And because terrorists can host sites almost anywhere in the world, move them at will, and use a collection of open source security features, pinning them down is very difficult.

The result is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the Internet provides extremists and terrorists with all the benefits the rest of us enjoy -- cheap, easy-to-use global communication and information sharing. But on the other, their websites provide a wealth of "open source intelligence" that can be a treasure trove for people who know what to look for.

Instead of trying to put the hackers out of business, the Feds should partner more closely with them to leverage their experience and patriotism. And for the rest of us, the Department of Homeland Security should urge vigilance, perhaps providing a place to report suspicious activity online. Just as we are told to be aware of our surroundings while out in public, we should also be alert to suspicious websites, chatrooms, blogs and discussion groups we might stumble across. Treating the "freelance counterterrorist" community as an open source weapon rather than a nuisance would expand the government's reach in the War on Terror exponentially.