Movie-Plot Threat: Terrorists Using Twitter

No, really. (Commentary here.)

This is just ridiculous. Of course the bad guys will use all the communications tools available to the rest of us. They have to communicate, after all. They’ll also use cars, water faucets, and all-you-can-eat buffet lunches. So what?

This commentary is dead on:

Steven Aftergood, a veteran intelligence analyst at the Federation of the American Scientists, doesn’t dismiss the Army presentation out of hand. But nor does he think it’s tackling a terribly seriously threat. “Red-teaming exercises to anticipate adversary operations are fundamental. But they need to be informed by a sense of what’s realistic and important and what’s not,” he tells Danger Room. “If we have time to worry about ‘Twitter threats’ then we’re in good shape. I mean, it’s important to keep some sense of proportion.”

Posted on October 30, 2008 at 7:51 AM33 Comments


Parker October 30, 2008 8:21 AM

I think someone on slashdot said it best about this when they said “Wait until they find out about email and chatrooms!!!!”

shadowfirebird October 30, 2008 8:35 AM

I did recently comment somewhere that the idea of terrorists using twitter showed how useless the UK government’s idea of tracking email and phone traffic was.

So perhaps a few “experts” pointing this out might be a good thing, after all.

averros October 30, 2008 8:36 AM

Steven Aftergood: “If we have time to worry about ‘Twitter threats’ then we’re in good shape”

Well, bozo, that only means that “we” are terminally stupid.

…but not as stupid as the regular Americans who keep paying for this crap instead of taking up their guns and putting the bunch of con artisrts called “The Federal Government” out of business.

Matt Simmons October 30, 2008 8:44 AM

It seems to me that there is no way to stop people from communicating if they want to. Whether you use steganography in Wikipedia articles or twitter or euphemisms people can communicate without the “good guys” knowing about it.

So from a tactical stand point, once you assume that your enemy can communicate without your knowledge, what do you do? What’s the next step?

Geo October 30, 2008 8:45 AM

If Twitter and all these other tools are so effective, maybe the US military should be using them?

Evil Trev October 30, 2008 8:48 AM

One has to wonder if it would ever occur to them that the naughty boys and girls might just have enough smarts to put together their own ‘comms’ app and run a server of their own, just to make life hard for the goodish guys.

Then again ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are matters of opinion rather than fact these days, I know which group I’m more worried about and it ain’t the criminals and mountain dwelling revolutionaries.

Hugo October 30, 2008 8:51 AM

[quote]I think someone on slashdot said it best about this when they said “Wait until they find out about email and chatrooms!!!!”[/quote]

Wait until they find out you don’t have to plan an attack at all. Just buy a gun and start shooting!!

Super Dupe October 30, 2008 8:52 AM

See the PDF on how they are already monitoring chat rooms

Eoin October 30, 2008 9:02 AM

Not twitter related, but e-mail tracking related: I thought terrorists started using one e-mail account, saving the mail as a draft, and then the next guy logs in and reads it. The e-mail is never sent, and it doesn’t get tracked. Are they tracking all drafts now too?

crashsystems October 30, 2008 9:31 AM

When I heard about this, I posted the following tweet:

So, the Feds think terrorists are using Twitter. “I can haz bombz?” “I’m gonna kill infidelz?

When various non-geeks that I know saw this, they were shocked, telling me that saying such things was a bad idea. It turns out they think I’m going to disappear, and find myself on a plane for Syria.

Phillip October 30, 2008 9:35 AM

God FORBID we communicate en masse without government regulation! We much secure this communication channel to allow government control in case someone says something they don’t like!

Things are looking more facist and socialist all the time.

Matt Simmons October 30, 2008 9:40 AM

RE: Everyone talking about a specific way of communicating

You can’t stop them from communicating over the internet. Neither can you stop them from communicating in the “real world”. There are too many ways, and you’re just drawing resources away from things that could use them.

Stopping terrorists has to be a long-term endeavor. Go to the root of the cause, learn why they want to blow us up, and stop them from the beginning.

Steve Downey October 30, 2008 10:02 AM

At least this is a more sensible approach that the TSA’s. They Army has apparently decided to worry about smart terrorists.
It depends on the takeaway from the report. If it’s ‘OMG – monitorz all twitterz’, well that’s fail. If it’s ‘we must assume our enemies communicate quickly and accurately, and can coordinate in real time’, well that’s a good thing.

trapspam October 30, 2008 10:49 AM

Hey, you’re kinda of cute. What you wearing under that robe and headdress?

Terrorist Twitter Heard By NSA

Rounin October 30, 2008 11:22 AM

Bruce, it sounds like everything to you is a “movie-plot threat” even when it’s actually occurring.
Ninety percent of all intelligence is gathered via OSINT; not James Bond.
If anything, I think it’s probably a great eye opener for a ton people still focusing on third generation warfare strategies and techniques while ignorning emerging technologies and tactics.

Brad October 30, 2008 11:29 AM

I would rather have people communicate in an open system than get really smart and use something like yammer for private twitter-like messaging. Let’s hope they don’t get too smart and start using private bulletin boards! What could we do about that??

Mystyk October 30, 2008 11:54 AM

I already answered this on another blog, but I’ll reiterate here:

This was created by members of the 304th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Huachuca, AZ. The 304th is the school-house for Officers, and is not an intelligence “producing” Battalion (intel analysis on a given topic is called a “product”). This was almost certainly a class project to “think outside the box” for some young Second Lieutenants who are only just learning asymmetric warfare. How do I know all this? I used to be one of their students, and when I get back from this current deployment I’m applying to be one of the teachers.

Gary October 30, 2008 12:00 PM

We have reason to believe that terrorists are using paper based communication technologies to plan attacks on American targets.

ax0n October 30, 2008 12:11 PM

I posted my commentary here:

And a rebuttal to a “Twitter causes corporate data breaches!” article here:

Both articles “against” twitter are full of FUD. We are never going to put a serious cramp on terrorism if we keep pointing at mobile phones, the latest popular social network, or shoes bearing explosives. By the time someone is using twitter while wearing an explosive vest, it’s too late. The same thing goes for TSA. If you aren’t catching terrorists until it’s time to board the plane, you’re doing it wrong.

ax0n October 30, 2008 12:16 PM

Mystyk: That’s good and well, but:

1) Should “what if?” scenarios like these really be put into a report like the one that got released?

2) A class of this nature would be better served if it focused on general defense rather than threat vector brainstorming.

Best of luck on your deployment, and here’s hoping you are empowered to teach willing pupils how to think sensibly, not irrationally.

Skorj October 30, 2008 12:39 PM

ax0n said “If you aren’t catching terrorists until it’s time to board the plane, you’re doing it wrong.”

This is about the clearest and most insightful expression of the recurring theme of this blog. Well said!

g October 30, 2008 12:42 PM

Terrorists using Twitter? Good! Who knows how many bombings have been foiled by Twitter’s infamous unreliability?

paul October 30, 2008 12:46 PM

I’d think that the great value of Twitter and other automatable communications tools for “evildoers” would be to produce huge amounts of diversionary traffic about something else when a real operation is about to take place, to level message rates and defeat traffic analysis, and so forth. In short, to flood eavesdroppers with disinformation. The quantity of bits you need for the real work is way smaller.

Reality Cheque October 30, 2008 1:30 PM

They may have been trying to “think outside the box”, but that’s no excuse for coming up with really stupid ideas. “Thinking outside the box” is about innovative, creative thinking, but it isn’t mutually exclusive to critical thinking and review, and certainly isn’t a reason for coming up with truly dumb ideas.

Simple Simon October 30, 2008 4:17 PM

Shortwave radio, morse code, the small ads, secret writing, microdots and dead drops are just so unfashionable these days. Let’s all use Twitter, I don’t think.

Ano mous October 30, 2008 5:44 PM

@Reality Cheque

I think that the word you use; its meaning has changed under you. The archetypal “think outside the box” is the secretary who, on hearing that the other office was urgently running out of paper, decided to fax some over. (reported by Scott Adams)

Hugh October 31, 2008 12:47 AM

This assumption that twitter might be used by bad guys does not imply to monitor everybody on twitter. Twitter is not the only social network out there right now. How would we know which one the bad guys are using any given day. This is another excuse to monitor these social networks.

rnc protester October 31, 2008 1:21 PM

This is almost certainly a reaction to folks who were protesting the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this summer. A number of Twitter groups were set up to broadcast up-to-the-minute updates on different developments related to the protests. See for an example.

It is chilling to see that simple political protesters like those are being classified as “terrorists,” but of course this is nothing new under this administration.

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