We’ve already seen people as high up the food chain as Jon Tester saying that Edward Snowden’s leaked material didn’t really hurt anything. But does that argument hold water? One report from a leading data firm claims to have done a very thorough investigation and concludes that al Qaida made some big changes to their communications protocols shortly after the Snowden material moved into the public domain.
According to a new report to be released Friday by big data firm Recorded Future , a direct connection can be drawn: Just months after the Snowden documents were released, al-Qaida dramatically changed the way its operatives interacted online.
“We saw at least three major product releases coming out with different organizations with al-Qaida and associated organizations fairly quickly after the Snowden disclosures,” said Recorded Future’s CEO and co-founder Christopher Ahlberg. “But we wanted to go deeper and see how big those changes were.”
By “product releases,” Ahlberg means new software. And for the first time, Recorded Future says, it can now codify just how big a change it was.
Through some reverse engineering magic, Recorded Future determined that the terrorists had been using a home grown encryption program called Mujahideen Secrets for the past seven years with only minor updates to the code. (To be thorough, I went and looked for Mujahideen Secrets on my Droid right after reading this story, but the Play Store doesn’t offer that app for Android.) But after the Snowden leaks dropped, things took a sudden turn.
As it turns out, Recorded Future and Reversing Labs discovered that al-Qaida didn’t just tinker at the edges of its seven-year-old encryption software; it overhauled it. The new programs no longer use much of what’s known as “homebrew,” or homemade algorithms. Instead, al-Qaida has started incorporating more sophisticated open-source code to help disguise its communications.
None of this sounds terribly surprising and likely just serves as confirmation that the terrorists are keenly aware of international news headlines and respond to whatever information they can get accordingly. It’s also worth noting – as another analyst in the story mentions – that this isn’t absolute proof of a causal relationship between the two events. It’s possible that they just felt the software was long past due for an overhaul and would have done it anyway. But that’s relying awfully heavily on coincidence.
Of course, the real questions about the Snowden leaks go unanswered in this report. The fact that they upgraded their software is interesting, but what we still don’t know – and may never know, for obvious reasons – is how much other damage was done. How many agents had to be moved around or removed for protection? How many foreign informants supplying us with information were compromised, or simply disappeared? What opportunities were lost which our intelligence agencies clearly can’t talk about in public?
If you still think Snowden was a hero, read through this report and ask yourself those questions. Yes, there are big questions about the NSA and its practices – particularly regarding US citizens – which deserve answers. But Snowden went a lot further than just that and he’s not just a whistle blower.