Pentagon hunts for ISIS on the secret Internet

Updated 6:08 PM EDT, Tue May 12, 2015
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Washington CNN —  

After months of bombing by the U.S. and coalition forces, ISIS remains undefeated on the ground and has now entered a new phase, using the cyber-world as a weapon.

For evidence of the evolution, one need look no further than the recent ISIS inspired attack in Garland, Texas, which was carried out after gunman Elton Simpson publicly posted a tweet on the Internet, using the hashtag #TexasAttack.

It’s a trend that has captured the attention of law enforcement and now the military.

RELATED: Former CIA official says ISIS attack in U.S. is possible

“The thing I always look for is at what point do groups, for example, decide that they need to move from viewing the Internet as a source of recruitment, as a way to spread ideology, as a way to spread their message, their propaganda, do we see it move from that into something for greater concern as viewing it as a potential weapon system, ” said Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and the Pentagon’s top cyber-warrior.

It’s forcing the Pentagon to confront a secret Internet most of us never see, in a place most of us have never seen. It’s called the Deep or Dark Web. The U.S. believes ISIS – and other potential terrorists – are now using the most covert part of the online world to recruit fighters, share intelligence and potentially plan real world attacks.

Think of the Internet as an iceberg.

“Everything above the water is what we would call the surface web that can be indexed through Google or you can find through a search engine. But below the water that huge iceberg up to 80% times bigger than what’s above the water, that’s the deep web, that’s the part of the web that’s not indexed,” said Lillian Ablon of the Rand Corporation. “There is so much of the web that we can’t just Google for; it’s dark to us, it’s dark to Google.”

Though a tough space to shed light on, now the Pentagon is developing a way to pry the doors open and chase ISIS and others down.

“We need a technology to discover where that content is and make it available for analysis,” said Chris White of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

DARPA has a new military technology known as MEMEX that acts as a unique search engine – seeing patterns of activity on the Dark Web and websites not available via traditional routes like Google or Bing.

“MEMEX allows you to characterize how many websites there are and what kind of content is on them, ” White said. “It was actually first developed to track down human trafficking on the web – it’s an idea that works for an illicit activity users try to keep hidden.”

It all starts, White said, by being able to track down locations where activity is happening.

The challenge: Hiding on the web has become easier with tools like TOR, a browser that bounces communications around the world – keeping anyone from knowing what sites you visit and where you are located. That basically makes a user invisible, keeping the U.S. military and intelligence community in a high-stakes chase to find ISIS before it can strike again.