Islamic State group militants and their followers have discovered an unnerving new communications and recruiting tool that has stymied U.S. counter-terrorism agencies: instant-messaging apps on smartphones that encrypt the texts or destroy them almost immediately, reports the Los Angeles Times. U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies often can't read the messages in real time, or even later with a court order, because the phone companies and the app developers say they can't unlock the coded text and don't retain a record of the exchanges. “We're past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael Steinbach, the FBI's top counter-terrorism official. “We are dark.”
The hole in U.S. surveillance capabilities was not mentioned during the recent congressional battle over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. landline and cellphone data. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to scale back that program because of concerns it violated citizen privacy. FBI officials want Congress to expand their authority to tap into messaging apps like WhatsApp and Kik, as well as data-destroying apps like Wickr and Surespot, that hundreds of millions of people, and apparently some militants, have embraced precisely because they guarantee security and anonymity. The FBI estimates that 200,000 people around the world see increasingly sophisticated “terrorist messaging” each day from Islamic State group zealots via direct appeals, videos, instruction manuals and other material posted on militant Islamist social-media sites.