Big data firm Recorded Future claims that its research proves Snowden’s revelations damaged national security, and allowed terrorists to develop countermeasures to US intelligence. Just months after Snowden leaked NSA documents, al-Qaida dramatically overhauled their online communications system.
Recorded Future’s CEO and co-founder, Christopher Ahlberg, told NPR: “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. But we wanted to go deeper and see how big those changes were.”
Recorded Future called in expert Mario Vuksan, the CEO of Reversing Labs to help them delve further into the system. Al-Qaida have been using a Windows-based system called Mujahideen Secrets to encrypt their communications since 2007. Between then and the Snowden leaks, only minor tweaks and updates had been implemented. Researchers found that in th wake of the Snowden revelations, the system not only became available on on cellphones, Android products and Macs, but that the core of the system itself has been overhauled. The encryption no longer relied on homemade software, but had implemented sophisticated open source code to help shroud their interactions.
“This is as close to proof that you can get that these have changed and improved their communications structure post the Snowden leaks,” Ahlberg said.
Some have pointed out that this circumstantial evidence can not inextricably link the leaked documents to al-Qaida’s decision to build a more robust encryption system. Bruce Schneier, a technologist and fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard, stated: “Certainly they have made changes, but is that because of the normal costs of software development or because they thought rightly or wrongly that they were being targeted?”
“It is relatively easy to find vulnerabilities in software,” he continued. “This is why cyber criminals do so well stealing our credit cards. And it is also going to be why intelligence agencies are going to be able to break whatever software these al-Qaida operatives are using.”