The new conflict zone for secret services: Social media

The new conflict zone for secret services: Social media

Social media, a productive source, has become open to manipulation for intelligence services as well as terrorist organizations like never before in history. No state or individual is safe anymore.

News Service Derin Ekonomi Magazine
In a 2005 video recording, Mark Zuckerberg described his goal for the social media platform they were to create as, “[not] to make an online community, but sort of like a mirror for the real community that existed in real life." In 2016, social media platforms along with the entire digital ecosystem, have gone beyond this description and become life itself. All this means that a productive source has become open to manipulation for intelligence services as well as terrorist organizations like never before in history. No state or individual is safe anymore.

Junaid Hussain, an 18-year-old British Muslim, who hacked British Prime Minister Tony Blair's internet accounts and got access to his personal information, got caught and was jailed in 2012. In prison, he somehow started displaying a tendency toward radicalization and being influenced by the propaganda machine of the Daesh terrorist organization, he joined the ranks of this organization. Again, somehow, Junaid found a way and traveled to Syria and took place in Daesh's front line. Our story does not end here; what follows is also interesting. Junaid quickly climbs Daesh's ranks and becomes the one to carry out the terrorist organization's digital propaganda under his nom de guerre, Abu Hussain al-Britani. By 2015, he is third on the anti-Daesh coalition's hit list following the organization's leader and highest-ranking commander.

What made al-Britani the target of the coalition is neither his knowledge of war strategy nor his military abilities. What made him a target was nothing other than his social media marketing skill. Ironically, it is his excessive addiction to using the internet that led to his death. Al-Britani was killed with a Hellfire missile, which used the location information that was revealed when he clicked on a link generated by the British Secret Service sent to the messaging application he was using.

Whether we accept or not, the amazing advancement in technology affects our entire life, penetrating to the depths. As individuals, we are bombarded with information particularly as a result of the digitalization of communication. Our lives are becoming increasingly digitalized and in line with this, all our personal details are also becoming digital. All our details are recorded through companies, our employers, state institutes and organizations, our family, relatives and friends. The cameras owned by public or private institutions are also recording all our actions in the public sphere. All sorts of information on where we go, who we meet, where we shop, who we spend time with and the kind of relationship we establish/develop with our environment are all accumulated in the digital world, forming an important information cluster concerning us. In their profoundly effective article titled, “War Goes Viral," Emerson T. Brooking and P. W. Singer indicate that as users of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Weibo, we now produce, collect and spread information.

Experts state that this development has three important effects. The first of these is that the data in question being accessible. Today, compared to the volume of the data created through the internet and digitalization, all previously known information are like a drop in the ocean. The second is these data forming an analyzable set. And the third is, in relation to the two articles, the personal data in the digital world being brought together with the other data obtained and forming a sensible whole under record.

Based on the latest figures, there are 3.4 billion internet users worldwide. If we consider that every internet user has only one email account, this means there are 3.4 billion email accounts. In addition to this, users post 500 million tweets per day. Every second, seven hours of video is uploaded to YouTube in 76 different languages. With its 1.7 billion active users, Facebook is currently the world's biggest country. China's national social media platform Weibo has more than 500 million users. Furthermore, with their users numbering in the hundreds of millions, messaging apps like Whatsapp, Telegram, Tango, Snapchat, et cetera, which have replaced the SMS with the development of mobile technology, are transforming the nature of communication and hence information. Every day, the extraordinary volume of data sent through these messaging apps are collected on a world server and distributed. And we are yet to catch the peak of the wave. Half of the world's adult population still do not use the internet. Another piece of data provided by the U.S.'s National Intelligence Council is even more intriguing: Access to the internet in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East is higher than access to electricity. In a 2005 video recording, Facebook's co-founder Mark Zuckerberg described his goal for the social media platform they were to create as, “[not] to make an online community, but sort of like a mirror for the real community that existed in real life." In 2016, social media platforms along with the entire digital ecosystem have gone beyond this description and become life itself. All this means that a productive source has become open to manipulation for intelligence services as well as terrorist organizations like never before in history.

Daesh and FETÖ's digital tracks

It is seen that terrorist organizations have started to utilize the change in the digital world/ecosystem in terms of their goals of influencing and directing the masses and manipulating the agenda in their own favor and that they are increasingly adapting to these platforms. That Daesh is an effective user of social media platforms to instill fear in masses and recruit members, now stands before us as a reality accepted by experts. According to experts, the most important role in the Daesh terrorist organization's seizing of Mosul two years ago with only 1,500 people was played by the fear psychology it formed over the Iraqi military through the massacres it aired via digital media. The Iraqi military, currently demoralized, lacking adequate military training, with low motivation to fight, succumbs to Daesh's propaganda machine, leaves behind its state-of-the-art military equipment and Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, to the terrorist organization, and flees. Taking full advantage of the digital world's functions, Daesh, creating fear and panic beyond its power, seized control of a city of almost 2 million with a 1,500-strong force. This development, which shows the transformation of war and the fight against terror in the 21st century, is significant in terms of showing the threat states and individuals are facing. Daesh had become such a terrorist organization that it became almost impossible to separate its activities in real life from those in the digital world. Such that it was able to automatically use its followers' social media accounts for the organization's propaganda through a smartphone app it developed. As stated by counterterror experts as well, Daesh is a terrorist organization that simultaneously covers and operates in both the virtual and real worlds.

Similar to Daesh, another terrorist organization that uses both the virtual and real worlds is the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). It is known that this terrorist group has been effectively using digital/social media platforms – particularly during the Dec. 17 and Dec. 25, 2013 coup attempt and after it – to manipulate the Turkish public, to direct them in accordance with their own aims, to create dualism and disintegration among the public, to motivate its own followers and draw the masses in the grey zone to its own side. Using numerous bots and organic accounts like “Fuat Avni," which are identified as trolls, it has resorted to strategies similar to Daesh's to both grow the messages that are in accord with its own aims and to back the organic accounts supporting it. In addition to these, FETÖ has also used video and audio recordings – which have been proven to be fabricated – to effect the public, cause disintegration and cover its own goals. As a matter of fact, using certain media outlets for this purpose, it has adopted a more advanced communication manipulation strategy than Daesh. By creating a fear and panic atmosphere at home as a result of its own conventional media, digital platforms and its close ties with media outlets abroad, FETÖ has chosen to produce gains to serve its own aims. It is clear that with the power the terrorist group gained post-Dec. 17 and Dec. 25 coup attempt to manipulate the internet environment, it dreams of achieving an occupation similar to that of Daesh in Mosul in Turkey. FETÖ's July 15 coup attempt is the final outcome of this dream. It is now known that FETÖ, just like Daesh, developed a messaging app called ByLock, which it used to avoid being monitored by security forces and plan among its members the terrorist activities it wanted to carry out in Turkey. It was revealed to the public that ByLock's most important feature is that users can communicate with each other only if they know their code names and passwords. Thanks to the successful operation carried out by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), we now have all this information as a result of a major blow on the terrorist group through the decoding of ByLock, whose users consist of FETÖ members alone. Just as al-Britani was detected and killed as a result of his internet addiction, all FETÖ militants have been detected and determined by the MİT as a result of the group's addiction to digital platforms. In other words, the group's structure in Turkey has reached the point of collapse. The intriguing matter here is Daesh and FETÖ carrying out strategies of using digital/social media platforms in a similar activity. The two terrorist groups clearly show the threats terror organizations can pose with these characteristics on states and communities in the 21st century.

The US and UK's SOCMINT activities

So, how do states use the digital/social media platforms easily manipulated by organizations? As is known, 90 percent of intelligence activities take place with open source. In the general framework, this is called Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). Human Intelligence (HUMINT), however, is a definition concerning the open intelligence activities by intelligence organizations as a result of the personal communication/interaction through their staff. To define it simply, OSINT and HUMINT being carried to the next stage with the impact of the internet and digitalization is called Social Intelligence (SOCMINT).

SOCMINT is the new area of interest of intelligence organizations. U.S. and U.K. intelligence in particular are making substantial investments on their organizations in this field. The latest intelligence scandal that erupted in the U.K. and the decision of the U.K.'s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) are eye-opening at this point. According to the tribunal's decision, it was decreed that U.K. intelligence services MI5, MI6 and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) monitored the calls and internet communications of U.K. citizens by circumventing the law and illegally collected their personal data between 1998 and 2015. Another scandal that recently erupted was of the U.S. technology company Yahoo viewing the emails sent via its own mail service in the name of U.S. intelligence organizations. As is known, in 2013, Edward Snowden, an employee of the U.S. intelligence organization, NSA, had revealed that the U.S. and U.K. were monitoring electronic communications worldwide in the context of joint communication. Another known fact is that U.S. and U.K. intelligence organizations have established massive data storage centers within the context of these policies. Why are the U.S. and U.K. monitoring the entire world's electronic communications? Because their social media networks consists of the interaction and communication between individuals and organizations and all of these together signal a social structure. If intelligence organizations obtain this massive data that has emerged, they can monitor and analyze it and possibly manipulate it. This is the exact opportunity provided by social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The communication and interaction on these platforms provide priceless data on how individuals communicate, their social disposition as well as the people they have relations with. The most notable feature of SOCMINT activities is its power to influence major political, economic and social changes. As a result of the opportunities available due to the internet and social media, through SOCMINT, intelligence organizations are capable of conducting result-achieving operations related to the target point. By using the data obtained in accordance with the targeted objective, it is possible to mobilize large masses. For example, as a result of the protests in Spain that started off merely through SMS, then Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was forced to resign from post. The role of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the collapse of the authoritarian administrations in Tunisia and Egypt that started with the “Arab Spring" in 2011, is a fact that can no longer be denied. Back in that period, the identity of Wael Ghonim, who assumed the leadership of the youth movements in question, had been a topic of debate for quite some time. Because it was revealed that Ghonim was one of U.S.-based technology company Google's top-level executives.

Its scope and the opportunities it provides make SOCMINT indispensable for intelligence organizations. Another U.S.-based crisis that erupted in 2014 revealed to all the impact of social intelligence. The scandal had surfaced once it was determined that U.S. intelligence organization NSA collected the metadata for mobile communications in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines and in any point of the world using a program called Mystic. It was detected that in some cases, the NSA had also collected the contents of all conversations made within and from outside the said countries. According to a leak from NSA files, such a program could carry out procedures for 100 million searches on a daily basis. We can consider that the NSA tapped and recorded the calls of all institutions and even government officials of the relevant states related to this SOCMINT activity. According to another NSA document that was leaked in 2012, the organization's Special Source Operations department collected 500,000 pieces of address book information from Yahoo, 100,000 from Hotmail, 82,000 from Facebook, 33,000 from Gmail and 23,000 from other service providers. It is stated that as a result of an operation conducted using a program called Muscular, the NSA obtained a total of 181 million new records between December 2012 and January 2013.

A Netwar is at our door

Activities carried out with the aim of damaging, harming or modifying information known and/or thought to be known by a group of people, a population, are called a Netwar. We can also say that this is the way information is turned into a dangerous weapon. The actual objective here is to impact the target country's public and if possible, cause disintegration. This is where the internet and social media platforms create target points as their structures are open to all kinds of activity. And we are actually subjected to Netwar every day. The U.S., U.K., Israel, China, Russia among many other countries, develop Netwar strategies against both their own public and the countries they have chosen as targets. It is known that 75 institutes in Russia alone are working under the coordination of Russian intelligence service FSB on how the internet can be used more effectively. Russia employs the young social media users managing its millions of fake social media accounts in its “troll factories" on 12-hour work shifts. Through these accounts, the Russian propaganda machine continues to operate 24/7 in the global sphere. For instance, it is claimed that by supporting extreme right movements in European countries online through its troll army, Russia is carrying out activities to disintegrate Western public opinions and influence their politics.

Similarly, China is following a Netwar strategy with its 2-million-strong troll army not only targeting foreign countries, but also on the inside. The Chinese internet ecosystem that is currently kept closed to foreign technology companies or subject to tight security practices is also keeping its national internet and social media platforms under control through its troll army of 2 million. Every comment made on the platforms in question are directly pressured by this army or the agenda is changed via manipulation as desired by the state apparatus. The power of social media is used to arouse nationalist feelings on the inside and demonize the enemy. In this strategy, “homophily" becomes the feared and a goal from something unwanted becomes the real goal. Chinese President Xi Jinping labels this strategy as “focusing the public on the common consensus." Such that, it is said China will soon create a “social grading" system to be applied on every citizen. Accordingly, every individual will be included on a grading system that includes several factors from their work process to their online activities.

We can view the anti-Turkey activities carried out during the Gezi Park incidents through social media within the scope of Netwar as well. In a news discovered by Turkish journalist Yusuf Özhan, it was revealed that the FBI carried out attacks on the state websites in Turkey through a hacker. The hacker, Sabu, who directed the operation in the name of the FBI, tried to form a public opinion with the information obtained by giving cybercrime instructions to the world's leading hackers in Turkey to support the “Gezi attempt" through Redhack. As is known, the so-called files obtained in that period by the organization in question, were used in many national and foreign media platforms.


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