Digital Underground

Exposing the 'Darknet': Are Al Qaeda terrorists using your personal computer?

It's not only civilians who are vulnerable to the menaces of the Web. In the late '90s a group of analysts at the National Security Agency launched a war game called Eligible Receiver, in which they downloaded easily accessible software from hacker websites to see what kind of damage they could do. They determined that it would be possible to shut down the U.S. electrical power grid and disable the command-and-control elements of the U.S. Pacific Command. Not only could the FBI and the Pentagon not foil the simulated attacks, the chain of proxy servers was such that they couldn't even identify where all but one of the attacks were coming from. When Congress's General Accounting Office released its annual Computer Security Report Card for 2003, the Department of Defense received a D. Homeland Security got an F.

If a sort of arms race between the good guys and the bad guys has developed with respect to Internet technology, it's clear that the bad guys have a decisive head start. Big bureaucracies are uniquely ill equipped to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies. Stubborn institutional culture, clogged channels of communication, and the sheer number of employees in American law enforcement and intelligence agencies make it difficult to shift with the technological sands. Last month it emerged that the FBI had undertaken a $170 million overhaul of its antiquated computer systems—which will likely be abandoned because of technical problems.

In 2002 four Microsoft engineers published a paper in which they coined the term the "darknet." This was essentially an extensive and opaque Internet black market, "not a separate physical network but an application and protocol layer riding on existing networks," in which peer-to-peer sharing and other forms of piracy succeeded in flouting copyright laws and distributing material that was effectively contraband. Today it is obvious that the dark side of the Internet is much more extensive—and much more dangerous—than this initial interpretation suggested. Terrorists have strong incentives to master new technologies and exploit this country's 159 million Internet users in a virtual game of hide-and-seek.

illustration: Steven Dana

What is most extraordinary and ironic about this predicament is that developments that throughout the 1990s we tended to think of as unequivocally good—the free flow of information and ideas, the exponential acceleration of communications, the "borderless" quality of the Internet—now appear to cut both ways, to have a dramatic downside. The dark regions of the Internet have allowed Al Qaeda to reconstitute itself as a virtual terrorist group, one that is beginning, through its masterful distribution of propaganda, to resemble not so much an organization as a movement, and one that has used America's accelerated rate of technological growth to its own advantage. The only option for law enforcement and intelligence agencies is to become more skilled with network security technologies—or to hire those who already are. Three years after his release, Kevin Mitnick was allowed to use the Internet. He set up a computer security consultancy. Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security should look him up.

Patrick Radden Keefe is the author of Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping (Random House). He is a student at Yale Law School.

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