Members of the Islamic State may have some social media mastery, but hundreds of supporters could be unwittingly providing a treasure trove of geo-location data for the intelligence services hunting them.
Plenty of so-called Instagram “Stories”—ephemeral posts that last 24 hours—from potential Islamic State supporters include data revealing the account owner’s location, according to a new analysis into supporters’ use of Instagram.
“When they disclose their location in Europe this is gold for intelligence,” Andrea Stroppa from software research group Ghost Data, which obtained and analyzed the data, told The Daily Beast.
The team’s software analysis spotted more than 50,000 accounts linked to Islamic State supporters sharing Instagram Stories, the Associated Press reported on Thursday. Stroppa told The Daily Beast the researchers collected a total of 180,000 Instagram stories since starting in August, and analyzed 11,000. Around 30 percent of those were related to Islamic State content, so the team extrapolates that approximately 55,000 out of the 180,000 total should be related to the terrorist group. Out of the analyzed stories, just under 550 contained geo-location information, and related to 290 accounts, Stroppa said.
Stroppa said some of the location data includes longitude and latitude coordinates, allowing the researchers to accurately pinpoint a user’s location. (Dallas authorities recently caught a most-wanted criminal after obtaining the user’s GPS location from Instagram). Other location can provide details on which zone of a city a user was likely in, Stroppa said.
Stroppa shared screenshots related to three accounts with The Daily Beast. One showed a pro-Islamic State user on the outskirts of a city in northern Italy. In a photo the apparent user is posing with several friends, making the iconic single-finger gesture linked to the Islamic State to the camera.
The second account—which has a user who makes sure to hide their face in posts—was leaking location data pointing to Russia, Stroppa said. A third pro-Islamic user, posting from France judging by the location data, shared a photo of a mock “United States of Islam” passport with Islamic State branding.
“Stories disappear [so] people think they are ‘free’ and ‘secure’ so they share more,” Stroppa believes. Stroppa said he would share details with the authorities if they requested it, and claimed Instagram has asked for the data
“I give to officers not to a private company,” he said. Stroppa added the researchers are looking for technical partners to continue the work.
Jade Parker, senior research associate in VNSA Cybersecurity and Terrorist Use of the Internet at research group TAPSTRI, told The Daily Beast, “IS supporters in certain regions of the world are less OPSEC [operational security] savvy on social media than one would typically assume, but this is good news nonetheless for counterterrorism authorities.” On top of geo-location data, Instagram accounts could provide insights into users’ patterns of life, and provide potential warning signs of users would could pose a threat to public safety, Parker added.
An Instagram spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “There is no place for terrorists, terrorist propaganda, or the praising of terror activity on Instagram, and we work aggressively to remove content or an account as soon as we become aware of it. We prioritize reports related to terrorism, and we have dedicated teams that work to stop the spread of terrorist content.”
In 2014, a jihadi from New Zealand revealed his location in Syria when several of his tweets included geo-location data.
This Instagram research comes during renewed calls, especially from the U.K. government, for social media companies to remove terrorist content from their platforms more quickly. On the sidelines of a United Nations meeting this week, Prime Minister Theresa May was expected to discuss the issue with senior executives from Google, Facebook and Microsoft, as well as French and Italian political heads Emmanuel Macron and Paolo Gentiloni, the Guardian reports.
Often missing throughout that debate, however, is the trade-off between the intelligence value social media posts can provide, and pushing terrorist supporters onto other, more underground platforms.
“Disruption of IS material on social media is a tactic intended to limit access to potentially radicalizing materials and similarly-minded individuals, but it isn’t a strategy that meaningfully degrades the group’s operational capacity in cyberspace in pursuit of a lasting defeat,” Parker said.
Instead, maybe there is something to be gained when Islamic State supporters use platforms that are more receptive to assisting law enforcement requests for data. And especially when those users keep sharing their location.