October 14, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Al-Qaida proving elusive on the Net
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to trace Internet users to their geographic location. (An NSA spokesman said that the agency could not comment on the topic because the patent concerns an "actual or alleged operational issue.")
But that "geotargeting" tactic--which also been employed by software companies seeking to tailor ad delivery--is not foolproof, thanks to anonymizers, proxies and other services that can mask one's location.
"In general, if someone wishes to hide his location, he can," said Gene Spafford, a Purdue University computer science professor who specializes in security and cybercrime.
Lack of feasible technology isn't the only obstacle to intelligence gathering, said Arnaud de Borchgrave, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has focused on "cyberspace terrorism." Limited availability of translators for languages in which the sites appear curbs the government's ability to track activity in "real time," he said.
Even with additional resources, completely dismantling al-Qaida's Web presence would be an impossible aim, de Borchgrave said: "The number of people that were required to monitor all of this would be stupendous, and clearly they don't have all those resources."
In an unusual twist, some members of the shadowy intelligence community fret that individual vigilantes will try to take down Web sites that appear to be sympathetic toward terrorists or reproduce their materials.
Ben Venzke, the chief executive of IntelCenter, a government contractor in Alexandria, Va., warns would-be hackers not to be tempted.
"Messing around on the Internet just because it's accessible from your living room is no more advisable than packing up your bags for a weekend and flying to Iraq to play soldier," Venzke said. "There is this sense of security, this sense of distance. While a lot of people would be apprehensive flying to Iraq or meandering around the back alleys of Karachi...a lot of people don't have that (sense) for the Internet because it is so readily available at their homes."
Individuals "should do what all of the other professionals in this field do. Apply to the FBI, the military, the intelligence agencies, or work for a contractor that's working for the government in these fields," Venzke said.
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