The Bureau of Justice Assistance and the FBI, as part of the Communities Against Terrorism program (think “See Something / Say Something”), have released a flyer outlining several potential indicators of terrorist activities within Internet Cafés. Included among the potential warning signs, are anonymization software usage, steganography, and reading too many news sources on terrorist related events.
Before we get to the FBI’s list, it’s important to note that Internet Cafés are not a common thing here in the U.S. The closest one will come to that is a coffee shop, bookstore, or an airport lounge. Then again, even McDonald’s offers free Wi-Fi.
It’s also worth noting that the flyer’s small print mentions that each indicator on its own is “lawful conduct or behavior” and that there may be a perfectly innocent explanation for what appears to be suspicious actions. Still, people are jumpy at times, and stereotypes are a fact of life unfortunately.
According to the flyer, people who are overly concerned about privacy, and attempt to shield the screen from the view of others; who are observed switching SIM cards in a cell phone or use multiple cell phones; or who act nervous or perform suspicious behavior inconsistent with their activities, are raising red flags that mark them as potential terrorists.
Moreover, signing into a residential account (Comcast, AOL, etc.) from a public location, using anonymization tools or other means to mask an IP address, using VoIP or communicating through a PC game, using encryption, or steganography (embedding documents or other data within a picture), should also raise red flags.
Someone who is reading up on military tactics, equipment manuals, chemical or biological information, revolutionary (terrorist) literature, explosives, weapons, defensive tactics, police or government information, or seems to be preoccupied with news reports on terrorist attacks, is suspect too.
I’m not sure how someone without first hand knowledge, who isn’t standing directly behind the allegedly suspicious person, would know they’re using an anonymizing website or tool, full disk or directory-based encryption, or steganography. Honestly, how many people would recognize steganography from a distance? Likewise, the idea that someone should be watched if they have multiple phones, or change out SIM cards, is also a stretch.
As for the reading material, research can hardly be considered suspicious, and the FBI made that clear in the flyer's fine print. But given the topic, and some people’s disposition for stereotypes, it makes profiling all too easy.
There’s more though, as a person who is gathering information on sporting venues, populated locations, transportation maps, or photos is also someone who should be watched. Now, the flyer qualifies this as information on vulnerable infrastructure, but what does that term mean to the typical person? How would they tell the difference between someone looking to do harm and someone planning a vacation or an extended stay in the area? Suddenly using Google Maps in a public setting takes on a new meaning.
“It is important to remember that just because someone’s speech, actions, beliefs, appearance, or way of life is different; it does not mean that he or s he is suspicious,” the FBI’s flyer explains.
If someone is observed performing any of the listed suspicious acts, the person making the observation is to gather as much information as possible without drawing attention to themselves, as well as other information such as names used, license places, vehicle description, languages spoken, and ethnicity. Once that’s done, they’re to contact law enforcement.
Clearly the FBI is looking filter out hundreds of dead-end leads on the off chance that something credible comes their way. Yet, the list of suspicious actions is overly generic, and despite the notes stating otherwise, it is sure to develop leads based on false assumptions and racial profiles.
Asking the community to work together in order to protect itself is great, but singling a person out because they have multiple phones, change a SIM card, read the news obsessively, practice basic privacy (anonymization or screen protection), or use a map and a search engine to research a populated area, comes off as a bad idea.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let us know. The flyer itself can be seen on Public Intelligence.net.
This article is the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff at The Tech Herald or Monsters & Critics