The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has set up a 24-hour “help desk” to advise burgeoning jihadists on encrypting their communications in order to evade authorities, NBC News reported.
The tactic has developed rapidly over the last year, according to several U.S. Army counterterrorism analysts. Roughly half a dozen senior operatives are now always on hand at this center to provide digital pointers.
ISIS has taken credit for the deadly terrorist attacks on Paris last week that killed over 120 people. European officials say those behind the attack may have used some type of encrypted communication in the planning process.
“They’ve developed a series of different platforms in which they can train one another on digital security to avoid intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the explicit purpose of recruitment, propaganda and operational planning,” said Aaron F. Brantly, a counterterrorism analyst at the Combating Terrorism Center, an independent research organization at the U.S. Military Academy, in an interview with NBC News.
The discovery of such tech capabilities will likely fuel the already contentious worldwide debate over encryption standards.
U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers have already used the Paris attacks to call for some type of guaranteed government access to encrypted communications data at companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google.
But privacy and digital rights groups have said that such access would weaken encryption for everyone without significantly helping law enforcement monitor potential terrorists. Many have also noted that terrorist groups have long developed their own encryption tools that would not be touched by any government rules.
The ISIS help desk monitors leading security software and encryption methods, directing recruits to the most clandestine option.
While a large community helps run the operation, there are five or six core members with collegiate- or masters-level training in information technology that fuel the help desk, said Brantly, the lead author of a paper on the topic.
“They answer questions from the technically mundane to the technically savvy to elevate the entire jihadi community to engage in global terror," Brantly said. "Clearly this enables them to communicate and engage in operations beyond what used to happen, and in a much more expeditious manner. They are now operating at the speed of cyberspace rather than the speed of person-to-person communications."