Security, Social Media and Encryption (by Joseph Campos)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

The November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris, France that killed 150 people and wounded more than 350, and the San Bernardino, U.S. on December 2, 2015, that killed 14 people, raise questions as to the conflation of security and democratic principles, especially that of privacy. Smart phones and other devices have an array of applications/tools that enable users to encrypt various forms of communication. The question for the security apparatus in democratic societies is how do we continue to promote ideals of freedom and privacy while ensuring security.

The advent of the internet and its deployment on personal devices drastically changed how we perform and execute a variety of activities, specifically the ways in which we communicate and share ideas. In addition, accessibility to a plethora of information, both positive and negative, has increased. Increased accessibility, coupled with a level of anonymity and encryption, escalates the ability of terrorist groups to disseminate information and utilize all aspects of the computer-mediated communication (CMC). One of the primary tools within CMC is social media. Besides social media’s role in facilitating communication, it is also an effective tool for monitoring society, affecting political change, targeted marketing, and maintaining security (Garrett, 2006). Social media’s limitless capabilities and open space for free communication create boundless opportunities for terrorists, and hate groups for that matter, to expose their ideas and advocate for violence. Kiilakoski and Oksanen, 2011, point to the use of social forums to discuss and promote, the effects of violence in UtØya, Norway, numerous school shootings, and development of terrorists’ targets.

It is important to note that the use of the internet and social media by extremists is not a new phenomenon, although they are consistently updating methods and technologies to disseminate information and recruit new members in new and different ways. It is imperative to understand the evolution of online communities and how their members become more integrated and active. All classes of terrorists/hate groups are using the internet from both the left and right, ranging from traditional racial supremacy groups to eco-terrorists. According to Lave and Wenger (1991), members in any community of practice (CoP) start by being peripheral members to that community. It is through first observation and then peripheral participation that they integrate themselves in the community. As their practice increases in frequency and depth of contribution, they become more integral members of the community while other peripheral members start their participation. In this way, knowledge is generated and maintained in the community. This idea is particularly important when thinking about the ways which the internet accommodates “lone wolves.” Distance is no longer a barrier to membership in terrorists/hate groups that have transformed themselves into fluid, non-spatial factions. This open platform enables a host of individuals to become active members of these groups. Social media and the Internet allow the lone wolf to enlist in a larger movement while remaining invisible.

The anonymity, invisibility quotient in terrorists/hate groups online membership and participation intensifies the fact that when people write on the Internet for others to see, they develop a sense of agency, identity and presentation of self that becomes more important than principles of authenticity and authorship that are prevalent in individual writings (Kramsch et al., 2000; Stavrositu & Sundar, 2008). The problem is that their agency is cloaked in cyber protection, which makes it almost impossible to detect the true nature of the author, unless self-disclosed.

One of the most problematic terrorist groups facing states currently is DAESH. Their use of the application Telegram to send video private messaging has resulted in Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, to block over 660 DAESH channels since November 2015 ( This is just one step in the process but the open channel platforms and encryption of numerous applications make this a constant battle.

In addition to the encrypting issues surrounding smart phone applications, the U.S. was recently entrenched in a battle with Apple Corporation to unlock the San Bernardino attacker’s iphone. While the FBI was finally able to unlock the data without Apple’s help, Apple’s ethical concerns also raises issues. As a result, statist systems are now at the beginning of a new version of the security/privacy debate. This debate will continue to rage and we will need to continually examine the limits to society and the duty of institutions to maintain security while ensuring rights that are at the very foundation of our identity as democratic citizens with inalienable rights.


Kiilakoski, T. and Oksanen, A. (2011). Cultural and peer influences on homicidal violence: A Finnish perspective. New Directions for Youth Development 2011 (129), 31-42.

Kramsch, C., et al. (2000). Authenticity and authorship in the computer-mediated acquisition of L2 literacy. Language Learning and Technology, 4(2), 78-104.

Lave, J. & Wenger,E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), retrieved March 12, 2016.