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10/27/2008
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Terrorists Could Use Twitter For Mayhem, Army Report Muses

An intelligence paper outlines technologies that terrorist organizations could use to inflict harm, including cell phone GPS data, voice-changing technology, and Twitter updates.

Terrorism and Twitter go together like Darth Vader and Tribbles -- the former aspiring to instill fear, the latter chirpy and not very threatening.

Yet a draft Army intelligence paper, "Al Qaida-Like Mobile Discussions & Potential Creative Uses," contemplates just that combination.

The October 16 paper, posted on the Federation of American Scientists Web site, was written by the Army's 304 Military Intelligence Battalion Open Source Intelligence Team.

It touches briefly on "Pro Terrorist Propaganda Cell Phone Interfaces," using cell phone GPS data to assist terrorist operations, mobile phone surveillance, possible use of voice changing technology by terrorists, "Potential For Terrorist Use of Twitter," and other mobile phone technology and software that bears further consideration.

In one "Red Team" scenario -- the red team being the traditional attacker in attack/defense scenario planning -- the report imagines a terrorist operative using a cell phone with built-in camera or video capability to send Twitter messages to other terrorist operatives in near real-time updates, "similar to the movement updates that were sent by activists at the [Republican National Convention]." The goal would be to provide troop strength intelligence and to coordinate an ambush.

Another scenario imagines a terrorist operative wearing an explosive vest, capable of being detonated remotely, and carrying a mobile phone to send and receive Twitter messages. This could allow a remote terrorist observer "to select the precise moment of remote detonation based on near real-time movement and imagery" coming from the bomb-wearing terrorist, the report speculates.

Concerns about how new technologies may be used are hardly new: Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a communiqué to make it clear that vehicles taking pictures for Google's Street View service are not allowed to photograph military bases. Google Earth has reportedly been used by terrorists to help plan attacks against British troops in Basra, Iraq. The Taliban in Afghanistan reportedly have been using Skype to evade eavesdropping by Western intelligence services.

And the report itself acknowledges the limits of its musings, noting that the contemplated scenarios deserve further research.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, sees the report "as a student exercise, not as a serious threat assessment."

"Terrorists can use credit cards and can openers, so they can probably use Twitter too," he said in an e-mail. "But that doesn't make it a national security concern."

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