LONDON — As U.S. forces converge on Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone has not been cut off. But calls to the terrorist leader’s laptop-size satphone – relayed via an Inmarsat satellite 40,000 km over the Indian Ocean – are going unanswered.
His number – 00873 682505331 – was disclosed earlier this year in the New York trial of his associates for bombing the US embassy in Kenya. Callers now hear a message stating he is “not logged on or not in the dialled ocean region”.
His satphone was used frequently during the 90s. Bin Laden was heard advising Taliban leaders to promote heroin exports to the west. National Security Agency (NSA) officials even played recordings of him talking to his mother to security-cleared visitors to their headquarters, as a trophy of their prowess. After failing to warn of the attack, the agency has fallen silent.
According to US intelligence, the satellite phone has not been switched on all year. Experts do not believe he was unaware of the US eavesdropping, which is simple to do. Even amateurs can tap Inmarsat using an antenna made of DIY parts and a scanner bought for 150 in the high street. Bin Laden may, however, have been unaware that NSA “sigint” satellites, listening from space, could pinpoint his location. The satellites are controlled from ground stations near Denver, Munich, and at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire. But they could only locate him when he was logged on.
Using this method, US intelligence believed in 1998 that they had found him. In August 1998, President Clinton authorised a cruise missile attack on a training camp at Khost, Afghanistan. By the time the missiles landed, Bin Laden had gone.
Having failed to forestall the worst attack of all, many Americans have taken to blaming new technology.
Congress will shortly debate a new Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which will further loosen controls on electronic surveillance. The NSA already operates a global communications surveillance system in conjunction with Britain’s GCHQ. One of the proposed provisions would allow GCHQ to conduct random surveillance of American citizens’ communications and send them on. This would breach the US bill of rights. (Non US citizens have no protection.)
The potential use by terrorists of the net and encryption have for years been a major target of intelligence agencies and politicians. They have demanded curbs on privacy and the banning of encryption. Throughout the 90s, the IT community was continually focused on whether or not security software that used encryption should also use “escrow”. Escrow requires keys allowing private messages to be decoded to be given to the government.
In December 1999, the US government abandoned controls on the use of “strong encryption”. It was also forced, on commercial grounds, to follow European countries and abandon the demand that encryption be illegal unless escrowed.
In the US and in Britain, some advocates of escrow had seemed almost eager to see a major terrorist disaster using internet encryption, to prove them right. Privacy campaigners countered that banning strong encryption would never prevent terrorism but would damage e-commerce.
Within hours of the carnage in America, these arguments were back in the headlines. A day after the attack, it was asserted that the net and encryption was undoubtedly to blame, and must have been used to coordinate the attacks.
Seven months earlier, a widely quoted newspaper report had claimed that bin Laden’s followers were operating a communications network based on encrypted messages concealed inside pornographic pictures. This technique, steganography, hides a coded message inside a picture or music file by making numerous small changes to data. The changes are invisible to ordinary viewers or listeners, but can be read by special software.
The February report luridly alleged that his group had relayed the “encrypted blueprints of the next terrorist attack against the United States”, including maps of targets, inside “X-rated pictures on several pornographic web sites” (see www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/2001-02-05-binladen.htm) . This month’s attacks have provided the first, tragic, test of who was right about the net, encryption and terrorism. The answers, so far as they are known, were given last Tuesday by the FBI at a Washington briefing. FBI assistant director Ron Dick, head of the US National Infrastructure Protection Centre, told reporters that the hijackers had used the net, and “used it well”.
FBI investigators had been able to locate hundreds of email communications, sent 30 to 45 days before the attack. Records had been obtained from internet service providers and from public libraries. The messages, in both English and Arabic, were sent within the US and internationally. They had been sent from personal computers or from public sites such as libraries. They used a variety of ISPs, including accounts on Hotmail.
According to the FBI, the conspirators had not used encryption or concealment methods. Once found, the emails could be openly read. The allegation that plans have been hidden inside internet porn has, so far, proven unsupported. A few days before the attack, a team from the University of Michigan reported they had searched for images that might contain terror plans, using a network of computers to look for the “signature” of steganography. According to researchers at the Centre for Information Technology Integration, they “analysed two million images_ but have not been able to find a single hidden message” (see www.citi.umich.edu/techreports/reports/citi-tr-01-11.pdf).
The FBI said this week they had nothing further to add. US and British communications intelligence agencies are also examining past internet intercepts. Information will be incorporated into a secret report to the US Congress, but will not be made publicly available. One US senator has claimed that soon after the attack, NSA received a call from a US cell phone to a “suspected bin Laden operative in Europe” announcing: “We hit the targets.”
Despite the forthright position taken by the FBI, some US newspapers have continued to report technological myths in circulation before the attack. Last Friday, The Washington Post claimed the inventor of the widely used PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption system, Phil Zimmermann, had been “crying every day… overwhelmed with feelings of guilt”. Although the FBI had already said they had found no evidence of these terrorists using encryption, Post readers were told that Zimmermann “has trouble dealing with the reality that his software was likely used for evil.”
In a public statement this week, Zimmermann accused The Post of serious misrepresentation in publishing things he never said. “Read my lips,” he said, “I have no regrets about developing PGP.” His grief had been for the victims, not for culpability about his invention.
The Washington Post and other US newspapers have also reported that bin Laden has access to satellites more powerful than the NSA’s, and uses a communications company controlled by a relative to overcome US monitoring. Neither the satellites nor the company exist.
Dr. Brian Gladman, formerly responsible for electronic security at the Ministry of Defence and Nato, believes that the reason that the terrorists didn’t use encrypted email is that it would have “stood out like a sore thumb” to NSA’s surveillance network, enabling them to focus on who they were. There is also evidence that, when communicating, the terrorists used simple open codes to conceal who and what they were talking about. This low-tech method works. Unless given leads about who to watch, even the vast Echelon network run by NSA and GCHQ cannot separate such messages from innocuous traffic.
NSA’s problem, says Gladman, is that “the volume of communications is killing them. They just can’t keep up. It’s not about encryption.”
NSA has been attempting to keep up with the internet by building huge online storage systems to hold and sift email. The first such system, designed in 1996 and delivered last year, is known as Sombrero VI. It holds a petabyte of information. A petabyte is a million gigabytes, and is roughly equivalent to eight times the information in the Library of Congress. NSA is now implementing a Petaplex system, at least 20 times larger. It is designed to hold internet records for up to 90 days.
Dr. Gladman and other experts believe that, unless primed by intelligence from traditional agents, these massive spy libraries are doomed to fail. The problem with NSA’s purely technological approach is that it cannot know what it is looking for. While computers can search for patterns, the problem of correlating different pieces of information rises exponentially as ever more communications are intercepted. In short, NSA’s mighty technology apparatus can easily be rendered blind, as happened here, if it has nothing to start from.
The new legal plans may therefore do more harm than good. According to Cambridge computer security specialist Dr. Ian Miller, bringing back escrow “will damage our security in other ways, and divert an enormous amount of effort that would far better be spent elsewhere. It won’t inconvenience competent terrorists in the least.”
PGP inventor Phil Zimmermann thinks the penalty of politicians misunderstanding technology will be even more costly. “If we install blanket surveillance systems, it will mean the terrorists have won. The terrorists will have cost us our freedom.”