This week, FBI Director James Comey spoke out about the FBI’s ability to counter cyber terrorism in the modern age, motivated by the upcoming expiration of the Patriot Act on June 1st.
In the movies, a cyber terrorist is someone hiding in a cave or dark alley, frantically typing on a laptop trying to overcome FBI firewalls and steal missile launch codes. In reality, cyber terrorism represents a much more diverse threat that is less easily recognized.
At a cyber security summit on May 20, 2015, Comey commented that the group calling itself the Islamic State, better known as ISIS or ISIL, represents the FBI’s most urgent threat. The organization has been known to use social media as a tool both for recruiting new members and encouraging individuals to commit their own acts of terrorism. “It’s a chaotic spider web through social media,” said Comey while discussing the evolving threat.
Using platforms like Twitter to do everything from distribute propaganda to showing off selfies meant to humanize members of the terrorist organization, ISIS/ISIL and organizations like it have changed the face of modern cyber terrorism. Twitter has suspended over 800 confirmed ISIS accounts, but that is just one part of an increasingly complicated issue.
Director Comey also elaborated during the talk on the issue of encryption, the process of encoding messages on personal devices allowing access to only certain users. As more options become available for private citizens to encode their messages, monitoring terrorist activity on social media becomes a more complex task for the FBI.
Concerned about the FBI’s continued ability to monitor ISIS/ISIL if the Patriot Act of 2001 was to expire, Comey said, “The lives of criminals and terrorists and spies, will be in a place that is utterly unavailable to court-ordered process.”
Without the Patriot Act, the FBI would lose many of the tools it has to gather intelligence on individuals suspected of terrorist activity, making the potential renewal of the Patriot Act an issue of the utmost import for Director Comey and the FBI.