Technology, terrorism, Muslims, media panic

Originally published in Subaltern Media

Shalini Singh of the Times of India reports on wireless networks (“WiFi networks under attack from wardrivers”, Times of India, Online, 1 Sep 2008, 0033 hrs IST, URL), which serves as an pointer to how media imagines the web and technology. The moral of the story goes like this: Wireless networks, which connect us to the internet are also potential portals for the bad guys who can misuse it for terrorism.

The terror emails sent from the WiFi connections of an American in Navi Mumbai and Mumbai’s Khalsa College could possibly be examples of such misuse.

It doesn’t take long for the journalist to make the panic connection between technology and terrorists (who are of course always Muslims).

The month of August saw a surge in such activity. Terror emails linked to July’s bomb blasts in Ahmedabad were traced to American national Kenneth Haywood’s unsecured WiFi network. Another terror email sent in the name of Indian Mujahideen was traced to a computer in Mumbai’s Khalsa College.

As my friend Angad pointed out, the Indian police has a rather Talibanesque moral zeal (read here) and the Indian media plays into such moral panics imagining the technological horror for its readers. Here it is not just technology that needs to be safeguarded, but the neat connection unsecured societies have with (Muslim) terrorists. Here the network is not merely the literal wireless network but its imagination as a wider modern and networked Indian society. Thus, the wireless serves as a metaphor for modern, technologically advancing, urban nation and how it remains threatened from insiders against the project of India.

Image of Ahmedabad blasts aftermath

Image of Ahmedabad blasts aftermath

Even at a technological level wireless networks, even with the best security measures can only sustain a hack for so long. Ask Bruce Schneier (URL) and he will tell you that anybody who says we need more and more secrecy is just wrong and cyber-terrorism is media scare mongering especially when it peddles nonsense and imagines vigilante heroes who are doing their bit to protect society:

Says Sumit Grover, a vigilante wardriver, “I discovered many unprotected networks, observed their misuse. Over the past year, I tried to alert the ISPs involved, the Computer Emergency Response Team which analyzes threats to computers and networks in India, Trai, the ISP Association of India and even the IT ministry. Nobody took notice. Sadly, this was followed by a spate of terror attacks.”

“Nobody taking note of unprotected networks… sadly this was followed by a spate of terror attacks!” OMG! Time for us to pull the drawbridges and get the boiling oil ready! The bulk of the evidence to date shows that terrorist groups are making widespread use of the Internet and securing a few wireless networks will not disrupt communication channels of terrorists. One can sit at a cyber cafe in India and send a threatening email to anybody without leaving any trace. It does not require unsecure wireless networks. The problem here is that the journalist makes the problematic connection between a cub story on wireless security and terrorism, which draws a wink and nod connection between Muslims and terrorism.


Anon (2008) Ahmedabad attack: Terror email leads to Mumbai Times of India [Online ] 27 Jul 2008, 0003 hrs IST,curpg-1.cms

Ward, Mark (2004)”Cyber terrorism ‘overhyped'” BBC [Online]

Weimann, Gabriel (2005) “Cyberterrorism: The Sum of All Fears?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 28, Issue 2 February 2005 , pages 129 – 149

4 thoughts on “Technology, terrorism, Muslims, media panic

  1. The ToI article is a typical, formulaic stance of the media. Even the placement of quotes and expert opinions is so predictable. I am an information security professional and I am past Schneier’s diatribes. Personally speaking, his image has changed from a security evangelist to a sell-out in the last couple of years. I met him a couple of years ago, and I don’t feel like recalling that experience.

    Anyways, the issue of not understanding the thin line between civil liberties and cyber-crime has come up many times in our (security professionals and hackers) discussions. It does concern us every time a teenager writes choicest abuses for Sonia Gandhi or starts an online hate-campaign and gets arrested, but no one has the candor to do something about it. I have given considerable thought to the solution and I aspire to do something, but it’ll take time as I need some resources and background work. What we really need is a cross between a public awareness campaign and organizations akin to Electronic Frontier Foundation. Apart from that, our political parties don’t have the balls to address the root causes of terrorism, so by doing such outwardly acts they just fool people and schmoozy media; such things are bound to happen.

    Keep a tab. Things will change for the better in a couple of years. Till that time, make sure you’re not the one who gets busted so use these wi-fi networks sponsored by Emmanuel Goldstein.

  2. The law enforcement machinery is currently struggling hard to deal with hi-tech crimes and modern cyber crimes. Even the traditional crimes, including terrorism, have taken new shapes by using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for perpetuation of these crimes. The problem arises when the law enforcement uses and applies the “tradition investigation and prosecution methods” to these hi-tech crimes in India.

    According to Praveen Dalal*, the Leading Techno-Legal ICT, Cyber Law, Cyber Security and Cyber Forensics Specialist of India, “The terms like Media Access Control (MAC) address, Service Set Identifier (SSID), etc may be scary for the law enforcement official in India but they must get themselves acquainted with them as soon as possible. This is because hi-tech crimes involving and using integrated circuits and Internet would be the future cyber crimes trend in India. There is inadequate cyber security in India particularly for the wireless networks. This makes “wireless hacking” possible and that is often used for committing cyber crimes and other purposes. Wireless hacking is, generally, a four step process that includes wardriving, victim identification, passwords and encryption keys sniffing and finally hacking. If MAC filtering is in place the offender may go for the MAC address spoofing to trick the authentication process. Even an access point (AP) can be spoofed and a rouge AP may pretend to be a legitimate one by using the same configurations, SSID settings or network name”.

  3. Pukhraj and Kunal: Technology only provides a superficial level of security. And security itself is a problematic term when understood within the frames of power. The media in this instance is scaremongering.

    WPA, MAC address are only filters. As long as we keep using metaphors from the old world (lock and key, sentries) we will get nowhere. For example, one could legally connect to a network and use anonymisers to cover up ones tracks.

    The idea that one can secure the network is at best one level of filter. The question we have to ask is why this threat is framed as emanating largely from terrorists, which is conflated with Muslims. An article about securing networks could go in the technology pages. But by bringing it to the front pages, highlighting and reiterating the connections between computer networks and terrorists we are commenting about a lot more than network security. This is the hegemonic political dimension that slips into discourse about technology.

  4. Hi, I am Sumit Grover the article has my mention. I know its a little too late to comment but nevertheless. The intent of the article was to make the general SOHO – Small Office Home Office and Home users aware of the possible threats they are open to by using an open wireless network. All the security professionals and companies focus more on the corporate security, but no one ever tries to look at the basic home user category which is increasingly moving towards usage of WiFi at home for convenience with no or very little knowledge about it vulnerabilities when used openly.

    If anyone would like to contribute to drive, I am willing to discuss this further.

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