The current encryption battle between Apple, Inc. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) highlights the need for industry standards to address cyber jihad, according to a recent report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
The report, Apple’s Other Jihadi Encryption Problem, by MEMRI’s Executive Director Steven Stalinksy and Head Editor R. Sosnow, asserts that the heated controversy over Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI by unlocking the iPhone of one of the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting case is only the latest example of jihadi use of tech devices, including Apple products, to support terrorist operations.
According to the report, for quite some time now jihadis have been heavily relying on Apple products to communicate, recruit followers, and spread propaganda.
In 2013, a 25 year old jihadi by the name of Abu Turab Al Muhajir used his iPhone to send a tweet upon his arrival to Syria where he planned to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The tweet said, “Internet, Restaurants, Cars, iPhones… Allah has made Hijra and Jihad in Sham [Syria] so easy… why are we still clinging to the Earth and hesitating?”
On May 28, 2015, the pro-ISIS jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam featured a tutorial on encrypting iPhones. The video was widely disseminated using the content-sharing website Justpaste.it.
In January 2016, the well-known pro-ISIS cyber activist Abu Naseeha, who frequently provides cyber security tips, tweeted information on how to use an iPod Touch for secure messaging. According to Stalinsky and Sosnow, tech-savvy jihadis frequently tweet these types of messages on how to “secure” phone against law enforcement surveillance.
On March 14, 2016, the pro-ISIS hacking group Cyber Caliphate Army disseminated, via its Telegram channel, a video showing members of the group editing video using "Cute Cut" editing software for the Apple iPad. The video also featured the group reiterating its oath of fealty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Just in the past two months, a member of the major pro-Al-Qaeda jihadi forum Al-Fida’ asked whether iPhones are safe to use in light of Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI and, in another instance, an ISIS fighter touted jihadi superiority over American, Russian, and Israeli security services, noting how the FBI cannot unlock an iPhone.
These are just a few examples out of many. Stalinsky and Sosnow say the problem is not going away any time soon. In fact, as iPhones and other Apple devices become increasingly secure, jihadis will likely continue to rely on them—perhaps even more heavily.
Regardless of the conclusion of the current rift between Apple and the FBI, the issue of cyber jihad will persist, making it imperative that tech companies take a stand against the use of their platforms by jihadi organizations.
“As Apple fights this encryption battle, with the backing of every major tech and social media company, what is missing is a unified statement from them declaring that they oppose terrorist use of their platform, and that they will work to come up with ideas to stop it, at the same time as they protect both privacy and freedom of speech,” said Stalinsky and Sosnow. “These groups need to come together to create industry standards for how tech companies and social media should deal with cyber jihad.”
The report emerges on the heels of a hearing titled, The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans’ Security and Privacy, held last week by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. Chairman Bob Goodlatte opened the hearing by noting that encryption is a valuable technological tool that can have both positive and negative implications for national security and public safety.
“Here is where our concern lies,” said Goodlatte. “Adoption of new communications technologies by those intending harm to the American people is outpacing law enforcement’s technological capability to access those communications in legitimate criminal and national security investigations.”
As lawmakers, law enforcement, and industry grapple with the difficult dilemma of balancing encryption with the need to protect privacy rights and national security interests, cyber jihad will likely continue to be a major issue if tech and social media companies do not collaborate to address this threat.
“We must find a way for physical security not to be at odds with information security,” Goodlatte concluded. “Law enforcement must be able to fight crime and keep us safe, and this country’s innovative companies must at the same time have the opportunity to offer secure services to keep their customers safe.”