Wherein the Justice Department declares instructions on how to use Bitcoin to be “material support for terrorism.”
Ali Shukri Amin, 17, admitted Thursday that he was behind the the now-suspended Twitter account @Amreekiwitness, which at one point had over 4,000 followers. Through it, according to a Department of Justice statement on Amin, he provided instructions on how to use the world’s dominant online cryptocurrency, and how to set up a Bitcoin wallet for would-be donors. In corresponding blog posts, Amin added more advanced tips, like recommending the use of the anonymizing Dark Wallet.
He was charged with conspiring to provide material support and resources to a terrorist organization, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The plea agreement contains more details about Amin’s actions, including his solicitation of help to build an “official” khalifah website and his utilization of every bully’s favorite service, ask.fm, to “proselytize… radical Islamic ideology,” as well as provide even more info on building secure websites and using Bitcoin for donations.
The DOJ filing also lists an 18-year-old co-defendant, who was allegedly assisted by Amin in his quest to join ISIL. The most interesting part of these claims is the DOJ’s mention of encrypted texting app, Surespot, which seems to suggest it has found a way to access these communications.
In or about late November or early December 2014, the defendant put RN in touch with an ISIL supporter located outside of the United States via Surespot in order to facilitate travel to Syria to join and fight with ISIL.
On January 16, 2015, an overseas ISIL supporter communicated to the defendant via Surespot that the group of ISIL supporters, including RN, had successfully crossed over into Syria.
Considering Surespot doesn’t store users’ communications and is, in fact, unable to view the contents as users’ hold their own decryption key, these statements suggest a couple of ways this information could have ended up in the government’s hands.
The worst case scenario — at least in terms of Surespot’s non-criminal, non-terrorist users — is that the government has found a way to intercept and decrypt messages.
The more likely scenario is that these messages were obtained from a search of Amin’s electronic devices. End-to-end encryption can’t prevent anyone from viewing stored, decrypted messages. Surespot’s silence in response to “warrant canary” questions suggests the FBI/NSA is making further attempts to obtain user info and communications. Communications may be hard to obtain, but there’s still a certain amount of useful info stored by Surespot, which includes friend lists and “conversation relationships,” which may provide some basic “contact chaining.”
While Amin may not have provided any direct assistance to ISIL, the allegations fall under the broad wording of “material support,” which includes “providing expert advice and assistance.” While Amin’s Twitter account has been shut down, his pro-ISIL blog is still live, so you can gauge for yourself the “expertise” offered, which the DOJ refers to as “a series of highly-technical articles.” (The entire blog is three articles posted over a two-month period, only one of which actually details anonymization options.)
The discussion of Surespot notwithstanding, this arrest seems to show that security and intelligence agencies still have little to fear in terms of “going dark.” Cited frequently in the 7-page plea agreement are public messages on public platforms like Twitter and ask.fm, which seems to indicate there’s still plenty of life left in these “old” investigative techniques.
But if you subtract ISIS from the equation, what we have is someone arrested and charged primarily for talking about certain things on the internet: religion, privacy and avoiding surveillance. None of these are criminal acts, even the “radicalization.” Indeed, all would be protected speech except for the discussion of the Islamic State, something the government has declared is “off-limits” due to its designation as a terrorist entity. So, whether or not you feel this bust is legitimate, you have to worry about mission creep. Because this is mostly about a 17-year-old Virginian who talked about Bitcoin on ask.fm, but did it in “support” of the wrong entity.