January 19, 2021

Manuel Ricardo Torres: "The cyberterrorist threat is evident and will be alive for a long time" | Technology

Manuel Ricardo Torres: "The cyberterrorist threat is evident and will be alive for a long time" | Technology


The Spanish Manuel Ricardo Torres Soriano, 40 years old and a professor in the area of ​​Political Science and the Public Law Department of the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, is one of the 15 international advisors of the Advisory Council on Terrorism and Propaganda of the European Center of Fight against Terrorism (ECTC for its acronym in English) belonging to Europol. This center, with almost three years of life and based in The Hague (Holland), is an operations center specialized in improving the response of the European Union to terrorism that uses technologies, tools and methodologies of the digital era. After passing through London, Stanford and Harvard, he arrives at ECTC Advisory Netwok as an expert in jihadist terrorism analysis, insurgencies and radical movements.

Question. What is cyberterrorism?

Answer. It is another manifestation of terrorist tactics that tries to take advantage of tools such as the Internet. They observe the environment and take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

The terrorists manage to scare many by killing few, to those who can, who are not too many

P. Is there a real threat?

R. There is an obvious threat. As of September 11, 2001, with the attacks in the United States, it gains visibility. In Europe it becomes more latent when the attacks on European soil happen. It is a threat that is present and will be alive for quite some time.

P. What weapons does technological terrorism use?

R. They are a mixture of persuasion and creativity. What differentiates terrorism from other forms of organized violence is the propaganda component. The terrorists manage to scare many by killing few, to those who can, who are not too many. They are organizations whose ability to project fear is far superior to that of their real abilities. They do not have the material capacity to spread violence to all those who threaten, but, by theatricalizing those murders, seeking the effect of their actions and the propaganda they produce, in the end, they end up generating the perception of a monster that does not correspond to their abilities. real. If people feel threatened, even if it is a subjective perception, they are objective in the effects and will transform their attitudes and behaviors as if they could be a real victim of an attack. If the agglomerations are panicked because they believe they are likely to be terrorist targets, they stop frequenting certain places and doing things, although, objectively, the likelihood of their being attacked is ridiculous. If they manage to transform behaviors with propaganda and persuasion, they are succeeding.

Many computer attacks are closely linked to the power struggle that States maintain and that use cybernetic means to generate instability in other countries.

P. Is the interference in electoral processes technological terrorism?

R. I am in favor of making restricted use of the term terrorism. The temptation is to call things that are not so, even if they are rejectable and have consequences for society. Terrorism always implies the use of violence or a credible threat of its use. Everything that does not meet these requirements, would not catalog it as terrorism.

P. Is not terrorism a massive technological attack that affects daily life and creates alarm and insecurity?

R. The cyberterrorism label would apply it to actions intended to cause a physical effect. The loss of data is very different if it results in the aircraft falling or if it is a damage to the income statement of a company. In the latter case, it can be devastating, but it will not produce the panic associated with violence and civilian casualties. In addition, it would try to reserve the term to the scope of non-state actors. Many of these episodes of computer attacks are closely linked to the power struggle that States maintain and that use cybernetic means to generate instability in other countries. These actions have behind them structures of specialists and material resources that, fortunately, to this day, are beyond the reach of terrorist groups.

P. As an expert in jihadism, does this terrorism have information technologies?

A young man ends up involved in a terrorist project because of the interaction through a mobile phone with someone who is thousands of kilometers away

R. They use them, but the main yield that jihadism obtains from information technologies is propagandistic. They have managed to enhance the ability to move their messages as never in history had a terrorist group. And also in the field of radicalization and recruitment. Today there are phenomena that were previously unimaginable, such as a young person ends up involved in a terrorist project by the interaction through a mobile phone with someone who is thousands of kilometers away. That there is no physical relationship, but that the result is equally lethal, was unimaginable not many years ago. Terrorists have the ability to seek territories of impunity. States close those windows, but immediately look for others. It is a continuous process of adaptation and the challenge is to react immediately. During that period of time during which this area has not been secured, the result is dead and the damage is irreversible.

P. Are there weapons to fight against that?

R. The main weapon is determination. Terrorism will always exist. It is not an ideology, it is a tactic, an instrument to achieve an objective. In the end it is a possibility open to groups of different nature. Now, that terrorism is a serious problem for a society is not inevitable. It can be contained at tolerable levels. We live with problems that do not make life impossible in freedom and with an acceptable security. The final goal is that, although it is inevitable that there are radical messages on the Internet, that these do not fit the bill, that we do not have to give up the opportunities that technologies give us because they have been colonized by radical groups. The strategy is to be persistent and creative.

P. What weapons are terrorists using?

Terrorism will always exist. That it is a serious problem for a society is not inevitable. It can be contained at tolerable levels

R. They are using encryption and anonymization a lot. These are tools that previously did not feel so necessary because in the Internet, States had not managed to act effectively in the identification of networks. There has been much progress. The terrorist use of the Internet is very different from that of 10 years ago because it implies security measures and programming to avoid leaving traces. The experience of a terrorist on the Internet is more tortuous and complicated than that of a normal user.

P. What can they attack?

R. Fortunately, cyberterrorism as a vector of attack that produces physical damage is a theoretical possibility rather than a reality. They have been threatening for many years, but those capacities are reserved for the States and large structures. Terrorists are not especially capable because it is not just a matter of technical skill; It requires organizations and material resources that terrorists do not have. But all this can change if there is a technological advance that makes accessible tools that are reserved for States today. A terrorist who carries out an attack that causes a denial of services and knocks down a page is more a sabotage, like a threatening graffiti. You have to be alert to act if you see that these capabilities can begin to act.

P. Do they move in the deep network?

R. A few years ago it was believed that yes. But the bulk of the propaganda is on the open Internet because it needs an audience. In the deep, it does not matter that you upload a video if nobody sees it. Yes they use the deep network for internal communication, to share orders and secure information. Everything can change and faster than we think.

P. Do the States have agility to respond?

States are late in adding some Internet tools. That is the time terrorists use to enjoy the window of opportunity and get the most out of it

R. Less than terrorists. One of its great advantages is that being smaller structures, with fewer limitations and based on efficiency, they are quicker to incorporate innovations that States take to add them as work tools. That is the time terrorists use to enjoy the window of opportunity and get the most out of it.

"If they get a relinquishment of a plot of freedom to get rid of a threat, they will have made our lives worse"

Manuel Ricardo Torres, at the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville.
Manuel Ricardo Torres, at the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville.

The fight against terrorism is also fought in an area where privacy can be a victim. This is the opinion of Manuel Ricardo Torres, Europol's advisor.

Question. Do privacy laws harm the fight against terrorism?

Answer. It is a contradictory terrain. Sometimes, when you act diligently to remove radical content or close accounts that make an illegitimate use of the Internet, sometimes you blind an investigation based on the data of an active account. However, there has been progress in the fluid dialogue between companies that provide services and the police and intelligence organizations, which are those that request the postponement of the closure of an account that is being investigated. If an account is closed, propaganda is stopped and it is good. But at the same time we lose the possibility of detecting who is behind, who is going to re-create the account in another site and to force us to start the investigation from scratch. More than the existence of very restrictive legislation, it is more effective to improve the interlocution mechanisms.

P. Are we willing to give up privacy to gain security?

R. That is a problematic balance. The temptation is to give up privacy, but that would be a success for terrorists. If they manage to degrade life in society to the point of an express renunciation of their plot of freedom to get rid of a threat, they will have made our lives worse. Giving up part of the privacy should be the last resort, if all the alternatives have been exhausted. They are difficult to reverse processes. When one formalizes the loss of privacy, it does not automatically recover when the threat has been neutralized. I do not think it is desirable or that it contributes anything to the fight against terrorism. That renunciation of freedom can occur in messaging applications that we use every day and the impact on terrorists is limited because they look for alternatives. The lives of millions would be degraded for very superfluous results.

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