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  • Writer's pictureColonel (Ret.) Natan Paz

The Shadow War

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

A basic purpose of the prison system is to formally punish the offender by removing him from society, thereby preventing additional crimes against the innocent. Naturally, the working assumption of a country’s government, legal, and enforcement authorities are that the convicted felon can no longer harm society from behind bars. However, this assumption has been eroding over the past two decades and facing even greater challenges in the past few years, with the development and availability of technological measures, which the offenders manage to smuggle into the prisons.

The challenge is now double: locating as well as monitoring the devices and the information transmitted outside the prison. The following article reviews the threatening scenarios and the way the law enforcement systems—together with groundbreaking technological companies—succeed in coping with such threats around the world.

Not Just Cell Phones

Smuggling cell phones into prisons is a wide, well-known phenomenon that is comprised of an efficient array of felons with unlimited funds, available smuggling networks of both inmates and civilians, and a bribe that goes into the staff’s pockets. This way, the prisoners manage to smuggle cellular phones into their wards, which enable them to communicate freely with the outside world, deliver messages and commit various activities, while directing crime and terror acts.

Previously, the existence of older phones in the prison cells meant that the felon had the ability to deliver his message via direct conversation only. With the development of new-generation cell phones, the abilities are far greater: the phone is now a veritable computer that can be used to deliver encrypted messages, provide instructions for action on the internet and darknet, and even technologically disrupt and harm the safety of the incarceration facility, thereby jeopardizing the staff and other inmates. The entire incarceration perception, in which the perpetrator is being punished by his removal from society, which takes away his ability to inflict additional harm, is no longer relevant. Advanced cellular devices blur the boundaries and grant the offender the cyber freedom required to execute any devious plans he might be devising, while physically locked up in the imprisonment facility. Imagine a situation, in which a crime lord and his subordinates continue directing criminal activities from within the prison, providing instructions and running their criminal organization from the inside, using the internet and the dark web.

Furthermore, the development of nanotechnology enables the smuggling of tiny cellular computers, which can easily be hidden in the human body. These can be transformed into weapons capable of disrupting the communication of the prison’s technological systems, unlocking cells, disabling radio and lighting systems, and more—thus making prison breaks and various other scenarios of safety breaches possible and relevant. The thought is even scarier when one thinks of the terrorists and heads of terror organizations currently imprisoned.

Disruption is not Enough

Around the world, incarceration facilities are using technological measures in order to disrupt cellular communication within their walls. The goal is to prevent the possibility of cellular activation from inside the wards and make it impossible to convey messages through phone calls between the prisoners and the outside world. Over time, it has become clear that using disruptive systems is not the best possible solution since technological developments enable the prisoners to communicate—with the help of outside supporters—even when the network is blocked. One method is by using a wi-fi network that is transmitted via a vehicle or a drone to the area where the disruptive systems are activated. All of this presents an even more complex challenge to the incarceration and enforcement authorities: not only disrupting cellular communication but also monitoring and collecting high-quality data and information from the smartphones used inside the prisons.

Over the past couple of decades, law enforcement authorities around the world have come to the realization that, in order to efficiently handle crime and terrorism on the cyber level, they must develop the abilities and technologies to collect and monitor the data in real-time. Therefore, special units were created for cybercrimes, forensics, WEBINT (web intelligence) data collection, and OSINT (open source intelligence), for all necessary areas in the law enforcement sphere.

It is now clear, for example, that in order to protect children from pedophiles who are now searching for their prey online and on the dark web, one must use technological intelligence capabilities to monitor social media and underground networks, and develop an entire array of capabilities in order to capture the perpetrators and bring them to justice. This concept is validated with regards to developing the capabilities and establishing technological intelligence arrays, in order to monitor the communication produced from the smartphones inside the prisons, as is now increasingly the case around the world.

Producing Quality Intelligence Through User Templates

In the past, sources for obtaining information about the enemy were open and included newspapers, radio, and television. But the internet changed the game entirely. Online information is now the main form of media. Newspapers have digital editions, and television and radio also broadcast via the web. Social media has long become the most significant and influencing area of our lives. Thinking that the prisoners might be out of this game means disregarding the opponent.

At the same time, it is obviously difficult to reach all the dark, hidden corners of the internet in order to gather information, and it is likely to assume that the felons blur their identity, or work under a false one entirely, in order to avoid exposure. Just think what technological means and intelligence abilities can enable: creating suspect profiles; understanding online operation patterns and kinds of information transmitted via the smuggled devices; exposing criminal partners both in and outside the prison; and the significant thwarting of terror and other various acts directed and guided from within, so that the prison can become a safer place and fulfill its purpose, of removing the perpetrator from society.

In reality, an actual shadow war is taking place. On one side are the incarceration systems that suffer from a limited budget, and are mostly preoccupied with self-protection, by placing more and more shielding and blocking technological systems, intended to block cellular activity. On the other side are formidable criminal organizations with unlimited budgets, which can smuggle smartphones and maintain continuous and regular communication with the outside world.

It is important to understand that OSINT and WEBINT, which enable the exhaustion of data from online sources, have been in use for a long time—not only in the security realms but in the civilian ones as well. These methods are employed by analysts in order to receive data, build user-profiles and templates, and create user experiences and consumer dynamics for the companies they work for.

Above all, it is clear that the rules of ethics and legal aspects are also relevant to the online world, and therefore all actions are done according to privacy rules. As for the shadow war actively taking place in prisons around the world, one must take into account the specific country and laws that enable using tools for online research on the data exhausted from the devices smuggled into the prisons. One thing is certain, though: the criminals and terrorists, serving their time behind bars in various prisons, will not let the law stop them. They constantly try to break through (literally and figuratively) the limitations they are subjected to, by virtue of their imprisonment.

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