Forget the image of a squad of feds hunkered in a darkened van, listening on phone lines.
Government monitoring of al-Qaida is a nanosecond-fast, needle-in-a-haystack search for obscure code words that could mean anything from an "atta boy" word of encouragement to a clandestine financial transaction to a terrorist hijacking, kidnapping or bombing.
That was part of the message John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, delivered to the World Affairs Council of the Monterey Bay Area on Tuesday.
Americans are rightly concerned about protecting civil rights and personal privacy from an intruding government, but the debate over "domestic spying" in the war on terror is miscast, he said.
"I think there is a high-minded purpose behind the government's desire" to monitor these suspicious networks, Arquilla said.
Following the flow of information, orders and directions issued by terror networks over the Internet has been a necessary part of combating terrorists, and involves sometimes fleeting windows of opportunity and jumping across international boundaries, a situation that doesn't lend itself to following the ponderous procedures of court hearings and issuing warrants, he said.
"They're not using satellite phones," Arquilla said. ''They're using Web sites and posing as teenage girls."
Some sites are passive e-mail accounts that only receive -- never transmit -- messages, and those messages are often couched in difficult-to-decipher book codes.
Some Web sites are designed to last only minutes, Arquilla said. When contacted, they refer the caller to the next site, then self-destruct. Messages can bounce from country to country, continent to continent, between the source and the final recipient.
Al-Qaida couples the high-tech Internet with a centuries-old Middle Eastern practice of extending credit called hawala.
"Money doesn't move," Arquilla said, "it sits in pots; in a souk in the Middle East, in a candy store in Los Angeles."
The candy store owner, he said, might receive an e-mail message saying something to the effect that "a man in a gray suit will come and show you the ace of spades. Give him $1,000."
"It requires no banks, no safe-deposit boxes. It just needs communication," Arquilla said. The store owner is assured that a similar pot of money is available elsewhere to make the loan good.
In ages past, the hawala system depended on couriers. Now e-mail makes such coded transfers instantaneous and virtually undetectable.
"Clues are often very fleeting in nature," Arquilla said. "The question has become, 'How much can and should the government be doing, and what is the legality?' I'd be comfortable relinquishing some privacy for security. The question is, where is the equilibrium point?"
The world of cyberspace, like the ocean, is a vast, largely uncharted wilderness, Arquilla said, "huge, rich, complex and beautiful," but also dangerous.
Without it, the worldwide terror network couldn't exist, and its uses are well understood by al-Qaida.
"They may dwell in caves," Arquilla said, "but they have developed an understanding of our technology."
Computer hackers, he said, "are the rangers of this great wilderness" and should be recruited to help track down terrorists in virtual space.
Americans concerned with protecting their privacy, Arquilla said, should recall that Americans protected themselves in the wilderness of frontier days, and have the means to do so in the wilderness of cyberspace, by applying commercially available encryption programs that even the government can't decode to their e-mail messages.
"Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt."
By KEVIN HOWE
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