November 6, 2010: Arab states are generally run by undemocratic governments. The rulers live in fear of their subjects, and strive to smother opposition any way they can. Not surprisingly, the Internet and cell phones are seen as a threat. It's not just Islamic terrorists who have found the Internet to be a powerful recruiting, fund raising and organizing tool. Anyone opposed to the Arab governments can use the Internet for organizing a revolution. To try and slow this down, the Arab states used their control over traditional (landline) communications to charge more for Internet access. Thus the rulers gain more income, and deny Internet access to those who cannot afford it (and are more likely to be opposed to the government.)
Moslems living in the West are much more likely to have Internet access, because there are better paying jobs there and Internet access is cheaper. Thus over 80 percent of people in Western nations have Internet access, while in Africa it's only 11 percent, and in the Moslem world overall (including the wealthy Gulf oil states) less than a third of citizens have access. But far more people in these countries have cell phones, compared to landlines or the Internet. This is because cell phones are cheaper, and far more people are illiterate in Moslem nations. Still, the Internet is an essential tool for recruiting in the West, where Moslems are far more prosperous, and likely to be literate. Moslems living in the West have far more economic and educational opportunities. The use of social media to attract potential recruits in the West enables the recruiters to spend the time needed to bring new, literate and more solvent people into the terrorism trade.
Meanwhile, cell phone networks tend to be set up by multiple companies in Arab states, providing competition, and lower rates for a hugely popular service that the government tended to ignore for too long. You can also get Internet access via cell phones, including the more expensive, but very popular, smart phones. This kind of Internet access is limited, but sufficient for political organizing and terrorist planning. It also suits the needs of all sorts of criminal enterprises. All this has led many nations to seek ways to limit this freedom of communication, especially since it's easier to encrypt your phone calls and other data transmissions.
For outlaws, using the Internet and cell phones is not without its risks. Intelligence and police agencies in the West have powerful tools for trolling the Internet and cell phone usage detecting specific activity. As police agencies, they can get court orders to obtain more information about users of social media. Terrorists evade some of this scrutiny by inviting more promising recruits to more (but not absolutely) secure parts of the Internet. The most useful recruits from the West are those with Internet security skills, that enable the terrorists to keep some of their activities more secret. This is a cat-and-mouse game that never seems to end, and will not be described in detail for several more years.
As the Internet slowly spreads through the Arab world, it is allowing more like-minded people to get in touch with each other, and discuss less violent topics that unite them. Usually, the only time you hear about Moslems using the Internet is when al Qaeda, or other Arab terrorist groups, use the Internet to plot and plan their next atrocity. But even more Arabs are trying to figure out why so many Arab states don't work, and how to fix that. In these groups you find that most Arabs agree with al Qaeda on one point; most Arab nations are run by corrupt and inefficient governments. While al Qaeda's efforts to fix that have not been very successful, there are many other groups seeking a cure. These groups are advocating things that al Qaeda considers heresy (democracy, education and liberty for women, economic freedom), and gaining some traction via another Western device al Qaeda has a shaky relationship with; the Internet.
Meanwhile, more and more nations are seeking to rein in the secret use of cell phones. Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, India and Indonesia were all pressuring smart phone maker BlackBerry to allow access to the encrypted messages sent between BlackBerry users. The countries demanding this have come to believe that Western nations have this ability. RIM, which makes the BlackBerry and runs the communications for BlackBerry users, has, with some difficulty, convinced the governments demanding decryption keys that this was not possible. The reason why the BlackBerry is the most popular smart phone for business and government users is because the encryption is virtually unbreakable, and intercepting it gets you nothing. But apparently RIM did have some bones they could throw these governments, who did have legitimate concerns about terrorists using BlackBerrys. RIM offered information on who was sending messages where. This data is also normally hidden by RIM's data system (which supports all BlackBerrys worldwide, via servers in Canada, where RIM is headquartered.) Some of these governments, however, are less concerned with terrorists than with local opponents to the government in power.
Meanwhile, Israel has joined France and, to a lesser extent, the United States, in producing a cell phone technology that enables troops and government officials to use their cell phones for safely discussing secret stuff. The Israeli approach is to create an encrypted military cell phone network, that a special model of an existing cell phone will be able to use. This is similar to the RIM solution. Late last year, a French firm developed a cell phone cryptography technology strong enough to satisfy French government and NATO security standards. The president of France was pleased, and his subordinates were relieved, because their boss is an enthusiastic smart phone user.
Smart phones are popular because they can do so much, particularly accessing the Internet and keeping their communications secret. Naturally, wireless devices, especially cell phones, give military and government security officials a very bad feeling. But in the last few years, several prominent heads-of-state (including the current American president), who were avid smart phone users, came to power. They were all told by their security personnel that smart phones were not secure enough (from eavesdropping) for the head of a major nation to use. But when you are the top guy in the government, you can order subordinates to find solutions, or else. The U.S. president got a customized version of his favorite Blackberry phone, with security features installed. American troops, in particular, are eager to get something similar, so they can legally use their cell phones in combat zones.
These secure smart phones are showing up in greater numbers, from a lot more companies. At the same time, smart phones like the Blackberry are increasingly under attack by hackers, and have been shown to be vulnerable. Gangsters and terrorists also like smart phones and easily accessible Internet security. So while these tools threaten tyrants, they also enable terrorists to more securely plan their atrocities.