The Islamic State has discovered blockchain.
The technology that powers cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum promises to revolutionize almost all facets of society, from payment processing to online voting.
Now ISIS is actively testing a blockchain-based messaging app that could provide everything it needs to thrive: secure, anonymous communication, a tamper-proof repository for beheading videos and other ISIS propaganda, and perhaps most ominously, the ability to transfer cryptocurrency anywhere in the world.
The app in question, BCM, is among a number of trials ISIS is conducting on niche messaging platforms such as TamTam, RocketChat, Riot, and Hoop, but the anonymous and encrypted nature of BCM makes it ideally suited to a group looking to avoid detection by law enforcement.
“The app’s core features of anonymity, encryption, and large group-chat sizes also pose a great risk for adoption,” Brenna Smith, a researcher specializing in investigating disinformation and the illicit use of cryptocurrencies, wrote in her Cryptosint newsletter this week. “Extremists covet technologies that can get their message out to thousands all while concealing their identity.”
Until recently, Telegram was that platform, offering terrorists high visibility while requiring very few identifying characteristics. But at the end of November, an international law enforcement operation led by the European Union dismantled the huge network of accounts and channels ISIS had established on Telegram.
Initially, it looked like the little known Russian messaging app TamTam was going to provide refuge for ISIS’ online activities. While it still maintains a presence on this platform, the administrators have acted aggressively to block many of the accounts.
‘Because Communication Matters’
BCM — which stands for Because Communication Matters — is pitched as “a highly secure communication platform” where “each message is strictly encrypted, and no third party can decipher the content.”
Where Telegram requires the user to give a phone number to register an account, BCM requires no identifying information at all. BCM also allows administrators to create “supergroups” of up to 100,000 people. The app is available on both Google and Apple’s app stores.
“It would be troubling if BCM truly allows content and communication that can not be disrupted or blocked by a third party,” Yaya Fanuise, an ex-CIA counterterrorism analyst who currently works for the Center for a New American Security. “Theoretically, it would provide greater security for groups like ISIS to perpetually store and disseminate materials like beheading videos and other propaganda.”
The company did not comment on the presence of ISIS channels on its platform or whether it would be removing them.
But some experts remain skeptical about the claims made by the app’s developers in relation to cryptography and security.
The company’s background is also a bit of a mystery. CEO Lanny Yuan, the lead author of the white paper detailing the technology that underpins the app’s features, is based in Guangzhou, China, but the company has been incorporated in the British Virgin Islands — known for its lax financial regulations.
A spokesperson for BCM told VICE News that the company’s aim is to provide “ a secure channel of communication and to safeguard the freedom of digital communication for our users. It said it would abide by laws and regulations of local governments but “under no circumstances will we compromise to any requests to provide decryption and back doors to content monitoring.”
ISIS supporters began testing the app last week, according to experts who track the terror group’s activities online. So far it remains an experiment but one that could grow into something much more dangerous.
“Could it be lethal, and better than anything previously? Yes, that’s possible,” Raphael Gluck, co-founder of Jihadoscope, a company that monitors online activity by Islamist extremists, told VICE News.
There are already around a dozen channels established on the network, some with over 100 followers, experts told VICE News.
The groups have already posted ISIS propaganda and images from recent attacks in Africa.
An independent researcher known as Switched, who tracks ISIS movements online, told VICE News that the official Nashir news agency had established a presence on the app, while Michael Krona, an assistant professor at Malmo University who tracks Islamic State propaganda told VICE News that remaining ISIS accounts on TamTam are posting links to BCM channels and instructions on how to use the app.
Among the messages posted on BCM and reviewed by VICE News includes a request from an Indonesian user appealing for weapons to fight those spouting religious insult, and saying they are ready ”to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.”
While Gluck takes such a request with a pinch of salt, he also says the fact such requests can be made on BCM shows how dangerous it is.
“You couldn’t say that in the U.S. without getting people in law enforcement worried. The guy is asking for someone to connect them to ISIS and arm them with guns.”
But some experts have expressed doubts that ISIS will ever have a large presence on the platform. “If it's too private or convoluted, it won’t catch on,” Amarnath Amarasingam, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks violent extremism, told VICE News. Switched added that the fact the app was developed in China would turn off many ISIS supporters.
But one key aspect of BCM that other platforms don’t offer is an inbuilt cryptocurrency wallet that lets users send, store, and receive cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum. The company also says it is aiming to develop a cryptocurrency exchange in the future, making it even easier to send anonymous cryptocurrencies around the world.
“I think we'll see more of those as conventional social media (Facebook) also tries to get in on the cryptocurrency rush,” Gluck said. “I would say if someone has an app where communication is fully encrypted and crypto payments are an option and it works as well as it says, then that’s a danger.”
Cover: In this photo illustration, the Islamic State flag is seen displayed on an Android mobile phone. (Photo Illustration by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)