Back to the future for national security surveillance

France says the Paris attacks are likely to have cost no more than 30,000 euros (NZ$49,000) to organise.

The attackers financed the assault by amassing several “tiny sums” which are hard to track, notably by using prepaid credit cards, Finance Minister Michel Sapin told a news conference.

“The cost of these latest attacks, the financing of the attacks, represents a sum not exceeding 30,000 euros,” Sapin said.

This means the attackers did not need to move any large sums of money during their preparations, he said.

The French finance ministry’s intelligence unit Tracfin said prepaid cards, some bought in Belgium, were used to pay for cars and apartments used by the assailants in the 48 hours preceding the attacks.

Sapin said tracking even small sums could turn out to be “crucial” in the fight against terror, if such data were cross-referenced with other parts of any investigation.

As part of efforts to improve surveillance of funds potentially used in future attack plans, France is to give Tracfin easier access to suspects’ files.

For some time, criminals, terrorists and spies were unaware what arrangements governments had made to monitor their communications and funding. ?Governments have quietly placed interception points in their national communication and banking infrastructure, and certain parameters for red flags are set by monitoring meta data. ?

In other cases, with the presentation of legal paperwork, specific individuals were closely monitored at a level that seemed impossible at the time.

This is what gave security agencies the upper hand for a while. ?It also allowed them to reduce in-the-field staff, or information collected via “humint” – Human Intelligence. ?Over time the over-reliance on electronic monitoring has eroded humint penetration and effectiveness, but that was ok, because of the ease, wealth and breadth that electronic monitoring allowed.

The smarter bad guys tried to get ahead of this by using encryption and other methods, but by-and-large they weren’t ahead of any government and spy monitoring.

All that changed with the release of Snowden’s information to the world. ?The bad guys now know all the methods employed. ?They know encryption isn’t worth the time. ?They know communicating via the phone systems and the Internet is hopelessly compromised. ?They know banking transactions are monitored.

The next step was inevitable: ?Terrorists and their enablers have had to return to old trade craft. ?And now the governments are hamstrung due to decades of under-development in human assets. ?You can’t suddenly move a bunch of western people in the middle of Syria to start keeping an eye on things – it’s something that needs to be slowly developed over decades and careful professional work.

How hard is it to fight a decentralised, compartmentalised, micro funded bunch of people that do not use banks and traditional communications over telco networks or the Internet? ? How hard is it to stop a handful of people doing lots of damage?

In the mean time, the bad guys are and have been living among us for decades. ?Some of them are citizens of the countries they attack.

We are facing a new era of this struggle, and it will take a generation for the world to catch up with the arms race against terrorism.


– AFP, via 3 News