Report: Snowden Leaks Linked to Changes in al-Qaida Operations

Image: Report: Snowden Leaks Linked to Changes in al-Qaida Operations (Handout/Getty Images)

Friday, 01 Aug 2014 03:20 PM

By Drew MacKenzie

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A leading "big data" technology firm says it has substantial proof that fugitive leaker Edward Snowden has harmed national security by allowing terrorists to counter United States counterterrorism methods, NPR reports.

A new report released Friday from Recorded Future says a direct line can be drawn between the thousands of classified National Security Agency documents leaked by Snowden and the way that al-Qaida has amended its encrypted online system handling its operatives.

"We saw at least three major product releases with different organizations with al-Qaida and associated organizations fairly quickly after the Snowden disclosures," said Recorded Future's chief executive officer and co-founder Christopher Ahlberg. "But we wanted to go deeper and see how big those changes were."

Ahlberg, who is talking about new software when referring to "product releases," says he has recently been able to codify how much al-Qaida has changed its programs.

Recorded Future, which specializes in handling complex "big data" collections, brought in cyber expert, Mario Vuksan, the CEO of Reversing Labs, to investigate the technical aspects of the new software, according to NPR.

Basically, Vuksan reverse-engineered the 2013 encryption updates and found more sophisticated software as well as new downloading technology that allowed encryption on cellphones, Android products, and Macs.

Ahlberg said that al-Qaida had barely altered a Windows-based encryption program it had used since 2007 to scramble its communications with such groups as al-Qaida's arm in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.

The al-Qaida updates were implemented a few months after Snowden disclosed the NSA spy techniques and mass data collection, and Ahlberg said he wanted to know if there was a significant connection between Snowden’s revelations and the changes al-Qaida had made.

The report says that Recorded Future and Reversing Labs found that the terror group had completely overhauled their encryption software and had started using open-source code to help hide its communications.

"This is as close to proof that you can get that these have changed and improved their communications structure post the Snowden leaks," Ahlberg said.

But Bruce Schneier, a cyber expert at the Berkman Center at Harvard, was dubious of the connection.

"Certainly they have made changes," he said. "But is that because of the normal costs of software development or because they thought rightly or wrongly that they were being targeted?"

Schneier added that even if al-Qaida can prevent the United States from tapping into its phone and internet communications, in the long run the NSA will likely prevail.

"It is relatively easy to find vulnerabilities in software," he added. "This is why cyber criminals 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."

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