The US Department of Defense (DOD) has shown reluctance in cutting off internet to the Islamic State.
Thomas Atkin, the acting assistant Defense Secretary for homeland defense and global security, told press earlier this week that the DOD was wary of treading on the rights of internet users in IS strongholds. He characterised the deliberation over such an action as a “careful balance, even in Raqqa or Mosul, or anywhere on how we balance the rights to have access to the Internet versus the use of the Internet illegally by folks like ISIL”.
The statement was questioned by Republican Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry who expressed scepticism over the idea that IS ‘citizens' have a right to internet access. Certainly, the Islamic State has wreaked its own brand of havoc on the cyber-battlefield, not explicitly through offensive operations but through its recruitment efforts on social media.
However, cutting off internet to the territory which the group controls would stiffle intelligence gathering on the group.
Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), the DOD's bleeding edge cyber-unit, has been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State. Its deputy leader, Lieutenant General Kevin Mclaughlin, recently remarked, "It's given us the opportunity to learn and mature and kind of plow back in lessons learned in a real circumstance that it might have taken us several years to learn.”
Intelligence has largely been gathered, according to international press, from implants in IS networks which allow CYBERCOM to not just gather intelligence but actively disrupt IS activities.
Ewan Lawson, a Royal United Services Institute Fellow in cyber-security, told SCMagazineUK.com, “Firstly, I suspect that CYBERCOM is gathering significant amounts of data and hence intelligence from monitoring those networks. If you shut off the connection then you lose those links, especially to the funders overseas for example.”
He added, “If there is going to be an opposition voice it needs somewhere to be heard. There has been reporting from inside Raqqa and having access to messaging and VOIP is probably less risky than using cell phones.”Although it was set up five years ago, CYBERCOM has struggled with organisational issues. Mclaughlin recently told Federal Computer Week that CYBERCOM needs to implement more realistic training missions and is having trouble finding the right people to staff the command. Despite teething problems, CYBERCOM is set to expand its staff from 4700 to 6200 by 2018.