FBI Director James Comey made waves this week when he suggested that commercial encryption on mobile devices may prevent law enforcement from intercepting communications between Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) militants.
"The tools we are asked to use are increasingly ineffective," Comey told a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. "ISIL says go kill, go kill...we are stopping these things so far...but it is incredibly difficult."
The FBI wants tech companies using end-t0-end encryption, such as WhatsApp, to give the agency backdoor access to its communications before the encryption leads us all "to a very, very dark place," Comey argued.
But even if Comey got his way — which doesn't seem likely given the companies' protests — ISIS would still have an anonymous forum for procuring fighters, weapons, and cash: the Dark Web.
"ISIL's activities on the Surface Web are now being monitored closely, and the decision by a number of governments to take down or filter extremist content has forced the jihadists to look for new online safe havens," Beatrice Berton writes in a new report on ISIS' use of the dark net.
"The Dark Web is a perfect alternative as it is inaccessible to most but navigable for the initiated few – and it is completely anonymous," she adds.
Accessed via the anonymous Tor browser, the deep web — anything not searchable by Google — "is kind of like an iceberg," Aamir Lakhani, senior security strategist at Fortinet, told Business Insider last month. "Only about 30% of it is actually visible, and some say it is around 1,000 times larger than web we use every day."
Indeed, "since the Dark [Web] is far less indexed and far harder to come across than regular Websites are, there is the possibility that there are Websites used by ISIS of which we do not know yet," Ido Wulkan, the senior analyst at dark web tech company S2T, told Defense One.
Messages sent and received on Tor are anonymized via a process known as onion rooting. "Just as an onion has multiple layers, onion rooting on Tor protects people's identities by wrapping layers around their communications" that are impenetrable — and thereby untraceable — by either party, Lakhani explained.
Tor browser email services such as Torbox and Sigaint are popular among the jihadis because they hide both their identities and their locations, Berton notes. Encrypyted jihadi forums and chat rooms also allow militants and sympathizers to communicate without fear of detection from law enforcement.
As a result, "the dark web has become ISIS' number one recruiting platform," Lakhani said.
The browser's benefits for ISIS don't stop at anonymous messaging: Supporters of the group from around the world can also use one of Tor's many ilicit exchanges to transfer Bitcoins — a digital currency — directly into the militants' accounts.
One ISIS supporter went so far as to create a guide explaining how anyone could help fund the jihadis using Dark Wallet, a dark web app that promises to anonymize your Bitcoin transactions. Numerous dark web websites soliciting bitcoin donations for terror groups have reportedly been found.
The national security community has developed various tools to track the IP addresses and activities of those logged onto Tor — including the NSA's XKeyscore, the FBI's Metasploit Decloaking Engine, and the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency's Memex project.
If the uproar over FBI director Comey's comments are any indication, however, web monitoring programs will continue to face significant resistance from internet freedom advocates.
Meanwhile, ISIS is taking full advantage of the shadowiest parts of the web.
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