Terrorist organization ISIS has turned to blockchain technology to anonymously spread videos and propaganda to thousands of people worldwide.
A Vice report on Dec. 13th noted that experts who track ISIS’s activities online have found that supporters of the terror group are currently experimenting with blockchain-based messaging app, BCM. On the subject, a BCM spokesperson told Cointelegraph:
“Our goal is to provide the most secure channel of communication and to safeguard the freedom of digital communication of our users, as we firmly believe that it is the cornerstone of any modern democratic society.”
ISIS’s Rise To Power Through Mass Communication
ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is no stranger to social media and secure messaging apps. According to an article in MIT Technology Review, ISIS’s rise to power in 2014 was partially facilitated by social media, Twitter in particular. At the time, the terrorist group was using Twitter to spread political, religious and military ideas across the Internet.
But as social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube placed bans on ISIS from promoting their content, the terrorist organization turned to secure messaging apps to share their horrific messages.
Earlier this year, ISIS was actively using the encrypted messenger platform Telegram (which has over 300 million users globally) as its primary application for media releases. According to a study conducted by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, English-speaking ISIS supporters were using Telegram to “communicate with like-minded supporters across the world, disseminate official and unofficial (ISIS) media, and provide instructional material for operations."
While this report noted that Telegram was “effective and secure” as a digital communication tool for ISIS sympathizers, Telegram has since taken initiatives to ban terrorists from its platform. According to its ISIS Watch channel, Telegram banned 8,291 terrorist bots and channels in May of this year. In addition, an international law enforcement operation led by the European Union in November dismantled a number of network of accounts and channels ISIS had established on Telegram.
And while ISIS has also been testing apps like Hoop, TamTam, RocketChat and Riot, the terrorist group has turned its attention to BCM Messenger due to its unique features.
A Closer Look At BCM
BCM, which stands for “Because Communication Matters,” boasts user anonymity, end-to-end encrypted messages and consistent privacy protection. According to its website, BCM is different from both Telegram and Whatsapp in a number of ways.
For instance, unlike Telegram, every message sent in BCM private and group chats are encrypted end-to-end, meaning no one else on the server can access that content. And while Whatsapp is not open-source, BCM notes that the messaging app will gradually become open source (right now the code is closed).
Yet one of BCM’s most distinct features is the ability for users to create “supergroups,” capable of containing up to 100,000 people. This would grant ISIS members and its supporters the ability to reach massive amounts of people in seconds. Moreover, users do not need a phone number or email address to obtain a BCM user ID, ensuring complete anonymity.
When asked about the goal behind such features, a BCM spokesperson explained:
“First and foremost, we would like to emphasize that our team does not support nor participate in any form of terrorism and extremism. We believe that freedom of communication is a basic human right. The very fundamental intention of our team when developing this product is to protect the freedom and security of communication.”
BCM also told Cointelegraph that they would disable the messaging platform in countries that operate under unsuitable conditions.
“We are committed to abiding by the laws and regulations of the local governments. However, we will cease operation in countries where the local rules do not provide fair and suitable conditions. In other words, under no circumstances will we compromise to any requests to provide decryption and back doors to content monitoring.”
While this may be the case, another critical aspect of BCM is its built-in cryptocurrency wallet, a feature such as this could potentially enable terrorists to send and receive cryptocurrency. On the other hand, it could also help authorities track down ISIS members.
CipherTrace's director of financial investigations and education, Pamela Clegg, told Cointelegraph:
“Nefarious actors are always looking for innovative ways to communicate while concealing their identity and hiding their footprint. Even if BCM has a wallet for cryptocurrency, those cryptocurrency transactions are still going to be recorded on the blockchain, which can be traced back to their source.”
Founder of the Hexa Foundation, co-founder of Orbs and former Senior Advisor to General Mordechai of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Neta Korin, pointed out that while key privacy features of BCM are its crypto wallet and no phone number/email requirement, the messaging app could just be a PR stunt.
“The claim by BCM that communications cannot be blocked by a third party seems like a PR stunt. This is already an inherent feature of networks like bitcoin and ethereum, where data can be stored in transactions by any user,” Korin told Cointelegraph.
Korin also pointed out the importance of understanding how BCM will use blockchain aside from its cryptocurrency wallet.
"It would be interesting to better understand what is the use of blockchain for the messaging app, aside for a crypto wallet. Advanced encryption methods can be deployed regardless of blockchain. Encrypted communication that is difficult or even impossible to intercept is a challenge the global intelligence community has been facing in the last several decades - long before blockchain technology,” explained Korin.
To Korin’s point, BCM explains on their website that messages are not based on a blockchain platform. While each message is encrypted, there isn’t a difference between storing a message to a BCM server versus storing it on a blockchain. The website also notes that upgrading software in each public blockchain node is difficult.
“Unfortunately, it isn’t big news that terrorist organizations are looking into using cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin related apps. We believe that the way to defeat them starts with awareness and education of the risks that this technology withholds. Only then it would be possible to delve into more advanced strategies to fight this,” said Korin.