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The Web: Terrorists prove elusive

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, UPI Technology News

This is the third in a series of UPI articles examining the current state and future prospects of the global communications and data network known as the Internet.

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CHICAGO (UPI) -- Intelligence on the latest major computer contagion, such as the Blaster virus or the Code Red worm, may spread fairly swiftly online, but more sophisticated terrorist and subversive activities on the Internet are not reported too widely -- primarily for competitive, commercial reasons, experts say.

"Banks don't want you to know that their networks went down," Todd Fineman, a senior manager in the security and privacy practice of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a technology consultancy in New York City, told United Press International. "Railways don't want you to know that the trains have stopped running on time."

Companies reported $202 million in losses from computer attacks last year, according to a joint survey by the Computer Security Institute in San Francisco and the local office of the FBI. The numbers are deceptive, though, the survey revealed, because only 47 percent of the 503 organizations surveyed could quantify their financial losses due to cyber attack.

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Most organizations do not know exactly who cracked their computer systems, whether operatives for al-Qaida, anti-globalization hackers or other subversives, said Fineman, who consults with Fortune 500 companies on this very problem.

"One thing is certain, though," Richard Miniter, author of "Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror" (Regnery Publishing, September 2003), told UPI. "The terrorists like to use our technologies against us -- whether it is airplanes or the Internet."

Several, high-profile terrorist actions on the World Wide Web in recent years have gotten the attention of government authorities, including the following incidents:

-- Terrorists posted instructions online on how to blow up the railway systems of Deutsche Bahn AG, a German operator.

-- Ethnic Tamil guerillas overwhelmed Sri Lanka's embassies with close to 1,000 e-mails per day, reading: "We are the Internet Black Tigers and we're doing this to disrupt your communications."

-- Members of the Palestinian Tanzim group lured Ofir Rachum, a 16-year-old Israeli, to a meeting after courting him in a chat room posing as an American girl, and killed him.

Computer hacking and murder are not the primary reason terrorists and subversives use the Internet, however. Like regular people, they, too, want to communicate. But because of their illicit activities -- which are tracked constantly by the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency -- they try to do so secretly. Using sophisticated software, such as White Noise Storm and S-Tools, message creators can embed information digitally in other information, usually in still image files, audio files or video. The software stores the secret messages using .bmp, .wav, .au and MP3 files, often by adding extra white space at the end of images on Web pages or e-mail messages.

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"This is called steganography," said Miniter, the author, who has traveled the world tracking the doings of terrorists for his book. "There is an art to hiding images in the background of other images. Our intelligence agencies are becoming adept at detecting this."

The FBI has testified before Congress about terrorist use of cryptographic techniques.

"A commonplace example would be building a Web site with an innocuous theme -- advertising a grain elevator in Minnesota, perhaps," said Miniter. "But embedded in the lettering on the site, undetectable to the human eye, but seen by computers, is a secret message, giving instructions about a terrorist operation or plan. We know al-Qaida is using this to hide messages."

One al-Qaida Web site in Tibet was shut down by government authorities, who learned of the illicit communications there, Miniter noted.

Another way terrorists use the Internet to communicate is through conventional message boards. They simply go to common public places online, chat rooms and the like, and post messages using what intelligence operatives call an "idiot code," said Miniter.

"The cipher for the code is only known to the people using it," said Miniter. "There is no mathematical relationship between the messages, as there is in cryptography. Despite the name, this is a sophisticated method. But the users are forced to memorize hundreds of code words, or they can't send complicated messages."

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A sample idiot code might be as follows: "The package will arrive in Germany tomorrow," said Miniter. "But the word 'package' really is code for a bomb. Only the sender of the message and the receiver know the real meaning."

Government authorities in England and the United States have cracked down on terrorist communications online, tracking traffic in these chat rooms and in illicit foreign language Web sites -- in Pashtun, an Afghani language, and Tagalog, a Philippine tongue -- which are monitored by intelligence agents, Miniter said.

The USA Patriot Act has provided U.S. authorities with the power to search and seize computers of suspected terrorists who use chat rooms and other Internet services. But civil liberties activists say the law goes too far and, if abused, could pose a threat to the Internet privacy rights of all Americans.

"ISPs (Internet Service Providers) can make emergency disclosures of information to the government -- without a warrant," said Abner Mikva, a former federal judge, former U.S. Congressman and former Clinton White House Counsel, during remarks at a forum in Chicago on Oct. 18. "They can learn about all of your communications, without you even knowing about it, due to the Patriot Act, on a mere claim that it can be helpful in an intelligence investigation by the government."

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Former Clinton White House National Security Advisor Anthony Lake also spoke at the public forum on the threat of terrorism, which was held at St. James Episcopal Church, in downtown Chicago, sponsored by Protestants for the Common Good.

"The War on Terrorism is real -- they consider themselves to be at war with us," said Lake, now a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. "In some ways, we are going to have to circumscribe our liberties during this war. But we must strike a balance between the war -- and our liberties."

Mikva, who is now a professor at the University of Chicago School of Law, said he supports the idea of cracking down on terrorists online, but is fearful of government overreaching.

"I want to be tough on terrorism," said Mikva. "But I don't want to be tough on the Constitution."

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E-mail sciencedesk@upi.com

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