Countering terrorism on the mobile network

Countering terrorism on the mobile network

By Shane Wilson, Revector

Recent proposals by governments and security agencies have once again raised debate over how the mobile networks are to be treated in a threat scenario. The driver is the propensity for terrorist groups to deploy mobile as an element of an attack. In 2003, the FBI said that it found bombs that were detonated by remote control in Saudi Arabia, and more recently in 2010 a bomb was placed on a cargo plane from Yemen to the US which was discovered, with a SIM card connected, at East Midlands Airport in the UK. In March 2013 police in Belfast investigated a bomb which could have been detonated by mobile phone.


Last year Pakistan blocked its mobile phone service during Eid to prevent possible terror attacks, and the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland saw the further push to legislate phone companies to shut down areas of the network deemed to be threatened by terrorist plots.


Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter told the Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality that the proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2013 where to “deal with threat to life and property posed by explosive devices which make use of mobile communications technology in their construction or activation.”


Driving legal precedent to cease service provision in a limited area in order to prevent death or damage to property is a divisive approach, whilst many will support such preventative measures, as was seen in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London and the ongoing concern over further attacks, there will be those that argue this has the potential for abuse under the broader interpretations of criminal justice legislation. This could extend beyond just terrorist threat and into wider criminal activity where mobiles are commonly used, notably in the case of the 2011 London riots where the Met police claimed Blackberry’s encrypted and free Messenger service fanned riots in Tottenham and helped in the organisation of looting.


In Alan Shatter’s defence, his call for changes to the law where provisioned by the inclusion of safeguards to ensure that any interference with services is limited to the extent necessary to deal with the threat. But is a blanket shutdown of the network the most effective response? When network security audit and monitoring can potentially provide a more granular and targeted response, shouldn’t more effort be invested in locating and blocking individual SIM cards suspected of being used by terrorists? This would deliver a more surgical response to ongoing threats, rather than a blanket response which will be detrimental to all affected, especially as many critical monitoring and control systems in our ‘smart cities’ depend on regular GSM connectivity. If a bomb threat alone can result in major network disruption then it plays straight into the hands of the terrorists agenda to create fear and impact our daily lives.