WhatsApp, Telegram Enable Trade Of ISIS' Sex Slaves

Privacy tools many of us use are put to a very dark purpose elsewhere.

06/07/2016 8:19 AM AEST | Updated 06/07/2016 1:29 PM AEST
An activist looks at an Islamic State group marketplace on the encrypted app Telegram, advertising a 12-year-old Yazidi girl as a slave for the price of $12,500, in a photo taken in northern Iraq on May 22, 2016.

The tools that keep your personal info safe are put to a horrifying purpose in territory controlled by the self-described Islamic State.

Telegram and WhatsApp, the latter of which is owned by Facebook, encrypt communications to ensure user privacy, but that same technology allows terrorists to trade all manner of contraband with impunity. ISIS uses these apps to sell abducted, severely abused girls and women as sex slaves, the Associated Press reported Tuesday (warning: disturbing imagery).

The article, written by Lori Hinnant, Maya Alleruzzo and Balint Szlanko, underscores how our technology can become impossibly complicated when ripped from a familiar orbit and launched far, far away from Silicon Valley. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long said his goal is to "connect the world," that world is home to men who would kidnap, harm and sell "virgin" children online for thousands upon thousands of dollars.

Here's a portion from the AP's report that details the problem:

[An Arabic ad on Telegram seeking $12,500 for a 12-year-old girl] appeared on an encrypted conversation along with ads for kittens, weapons and tactical gear. It was shared with The Associated Press by an activist with the minority Yazidi community, whose women and children are being held as sex slaves by the extremists.

While the Islamic State group is losing territory in its self-styled caliphate, it is tightening its grip on the estimated 3,000 women and girls held as sex slaves. In a fusion of ancient barbaric practices and modern technology, IS sells the women like chattel on smart phone apps and shares databases that contain their photographs and the names of their "owners" to prevent their escape through IS checkpoints.
In addition to the posting for the 12-year-old in a group with hundreds of members, the AP viewed an ad on WhatsApp for a mother with a 3-year-old and a 7-month old baby, with a price of $3,700. "She wants her owner to sell her," read the posting, followed by a photo.

The report is disturbing but nuanced -- a must-read for anyone wishing to learn more about the darkest threads tying our smartphones to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time.

Facebook says it does what it can to combat extremist messaging on its platforms.

"We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and disable accounts when provided with evidence of activity that violates our terms. We encourage people to use our reporting tools if they encounter this type of behavior," a representative for WhatsApp said in an emailed statement to HuffPost Tuesday.

Telegram says it does, too.

"Telegram is extremely popular in the Middle East, among other regions," Telegram spokesman Markus Ra told the AP. "This, unfortunately, includes the more marginal elements and the broadest law-abiding masses alike."

Ra added that the company frequently eliminates public channels used by ISIS. Facebook has also reportedly developed tools that help block extremist videos posted to its platform.

But end-to-end encryption is a different matter. The entire point of message encryption, as you may have learned from Apple's very public battle with the FBI earlier this year, is to keep prying eyes out, period. If law enforcement wants an encrypted message from Telegram or WhatsApp, the companies are simply unable to provide it to them because of the security measure.

Privacy advocates like Edward Snowden champion end-to-end encryption, because it allows users to keep their messages safe from bad actors.

Of course, reading about how ISIS uses the technology, you can probably come up with the counterargument yourself.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Telegram is owned by Facebook. It is not.

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