Why Are We Surprised When Terrorists Use Encryption?

on December 30 | in cyber, surveillance

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Guess what? Terrorists use encryption.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody but nonetheless seems to be a point of contention between proponents and opponents of exceptional access—the term used to describe proposals to provide law enforcement with access to encrypted data and communications.

After the recent attacks in Paris, buy cialis ambulance stories about the attackers’ use of encrypted communications tools quickly spread around the Internet. The New York Times ran an article that stated, “[t]he attackers are believed to have communicated using encryption technology,” and that cited WhatsApp as one tool that may have been used. The article cited unnamed sources and was subsequently pulled down from the site. Other stories stated that attackers used a PlayStation 4 to communicate covertly (“PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp.”). These accounts were based on comments made by a Belgian official before the attacks.

Exceptional access opponents gleefully pointed out that these accounts were inaccurate. There was, they said, no evidence indicating the attackers used encryption. And then, of course, accounts emerged a few weeks later indicating the attackers did in fact use encrypted messaging Apps.

All of this is very much beside the point.

I use encryption. My parents use encryption. You use encryption, even if you don’t know it. And yes, terrorist use encryption. Encryption is now integrated into the way we live, best understood, not as some type of sophisticated tool, but rather like the system of roads we drive on or the plumbing used to get water to our homes.

So to those who would cite examples of terrorists’ use of encryption, I’d say “no kidding.” And to those who would cite a lack of evidence, I’d say “just wait for the next attack.” Because, given the threat environment we face today, there is going to be another attack, whether one perpetrated by a lone wolf inspired by ISIS or one planned directly by the terrorist group. And when that occurs, it is a safe bet that encryption technologies will somehow be implicated.

That’s not to suggest we should blame encryption for the next attack, any more than we should blame the roads that terrorist use on the way to their target. What it does suggest is that opponents and proponents of exceptional access are asking the wrong questions.

Here are better questions: to what extent is encryption thwarting law enforcement’s ability to satisfy its mission? Alternatively, to what extent is encryption simply a fact of life to which law enforcement can successfully adapt. I haven’t heard sufficient answers to those questions.

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2 Responses to Why Are We Surprised When Terrorists Use Encryption?

  1. […] back and forth about “evidence” has ignored the reality that most people in the modern world now use encryption technologies in one way or another. At this […]

  2. […] back and forth about “evidence” has ignored the reality that most people in the modern world now use encryption technologies in one way or another. At this […]

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