Encryption Is Being Scapegoated To Mask The Failures Of Mass Surveillance

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Well that took no time at all. Intelligence agencies rolled right into the horror and fury in the immediate wake of the latest co-ordinated terror attacks in the French capital on Friday, to launch their latest co-ordinated assault on strong encryption — and on the tech companies creating secure comms services — seeking to scapegoat end-to-end encryption as the enabling layer for extremists to perpetrate mass murder.

There’s no doubt they were waiting for just such an ‘opportune moment’ to redouble their attacks on encryption after recent attempts to lobby for encryption-perforating legislation foundered. (A strategy confirmed by a leaked email sent by the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, this August — and subsequently obtained by the Washington Post — in which he anticipated that a “very hostile legislative environment… could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement”. Et voila Paris… )

Speaking to CBS News the weekend in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said: “I think this is going to open an entire new debate about security versus privacy.”

“We, in many respects, have gone blind as a result of the commercialization and the selling of these devices that cannot be accessed either by the manufacturer or, more importantly, by us in law enforcement, even equipped with search warrants and judicial authority,” added New York City police commissioner, William J. Bratton, quoted by the NYT in a lengthy article probing the “possible” role of encrypted messaging apps in the Paris attacks.

Elsewhere the fast-flowing attacks on encrypted tech services have come without a byline — from unnamed European and American officials who say they are “not authorized to speak publicly”. Yet are happy to speak publicly, anonymously.

The NYT published an article on Sunday alleging that attackers had used “encryption technology” to communicate — citing “European officials who had been briefed on the investigation but were not authorized to speak publicly”. (The paper subsequently pulled the article from its website, as noted by InsideSources, although it can still be read via the Internet Archive.)

The irony of government/intelligence agency sources briefing against encryption on condition of anonymity as they seek to undermine the public’s right to privacy would be darkly comic if it weren’t quite so brazen.

Seeking to outlaw technology tools that are used by the vast majority of people to protect the substance of law-abiding lives is not just bad politics, it’s dangerous policy.

Here’s what one such unidentified British intelligence source told Politico: “As members of the general public get preoccupied that the government is spying on them, they have adopted these applications and terrorists have found them tailor-made for their own use.”

It’s a pretty incredible claim when you examine it. This unknown spook mouthpiece is saying terrorists are able to organize acts of mass murder as a direct consequence of the public’s dislike of government mass surveillance. Take even a cursory glance at the history of terrorism and that claim folds in on itself immediately. The highly co-ordinated 9/11 attacks of 2001 required no backdrop of public privacy fears in order to be carried out — and with horrifying, orchestrated effectiveness.

In the same Politico article, an identified source — J.M. Berger, the co-author of a book about ISIS — makes a far more credible claim: “Terrorists use technology improvisationally.”

Of course they do. The co-founder of secure messaging app Telegram, Pavel Durov, made much the same point earlier this fall when asked directly by TechCrunch about ISIS using his app to communicate. “Ultimately the ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves. And if any means of communication turns out to be not secure for them, then they switch to another one,” Durov argued. “I still think we’re doing the right thing — protecting our users privacy.”

Bottom line: banning encryption or enforcing tech companies to backdoor communications services has zero chance of being effective at stopping terrorists finding ways to communicate securely. They can and will route around such attempts to infiltrate their comms, as others have detailed at length.

Here’s a recap: terrorists can use encryption tools that are freely distributed from countries where your anti-encryption laws have no jurisdiction. Terrorists can (and do) build their own securely encrypted communication tools. Terrorists can switch to newer (or older) technologies to circumvent enforcement laws or enforced perforations. They can use plain old obfuscation to code their communications within noisy digital platforms like the Playstation 4 network, folding their chatter into general background digital noise (of which there is no shortage). And terrorists can meet in person, using a network of trusted couriers to facilitate these meetings, as Al Qaeda — the terrorist group that perpetrated the highly sophisticated 9/11 attacks at a time when smartphones were far less common, nor was there a ready supply of easy-to-use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps — is known to have done.

Point is, technology is not a two-lane highway that can be regulated with a couple of neat roadblocks — whatever many politicians appear to think. All such roadblocks will do is catch the law-abiding citizens who rely on digital highways to conduct more and more aspects of their daily lives. And make those law-abiding citizens less safe in multiple ways.

There’s little doubt that the lack of technological expertise in the upper echelons of governments is snowballing into a very ugly problem indeed as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated yet political rhetoric remains grounded in age-old kneejerkery. Of course we can all agree it would be beneficial if we were able to stop terrorists from communicating. But the hard political truth of the digital era is that’s never going to be possible. It really is putting the proverbial finger in the dam. (There are even startups working on encryption that’s futureproofed against quantum computers — and we don’t even have quantum computers yet.)

Another hard political truth is that effective counter terrorism policy requires spending money on physical, on-the-ground resources — putting more agents on the ground, within local communities, where they can gain trust and gather intelligence. (Not to mention having a foreign policy that seeks to promote global stability, rather than generating the kind of regional instability that feeds extremism by waging illegal wars, for instance, or selling arms to regimes known to support the spread of extremist religious ideologies.)

Yet, in the U.K. at least, the opposite is happening — police force budgets are being slashed. Meanwhile domestic spy agencies are now being promised more staff, yet spooks’ time is increasingly taken up with remote analysis of data, rather than on the ground intelligence work. The U.K. government’s draft new surveillance laws aim to cement mass surveillance as the officially sanctioned counter terror modus operandi, and will further increase the noise-to-signal ratio with additional data capture measures, such as mandating that ISPs retain data on the websites every citizen in the country has visited for the past year. Truly the opposite of a targeted intelligence strategy.

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill also has some distinctly ambiguous wording when it comes to encryption — suggesting the U.K. government is still seeking to legislate a general ability that companies be able to decrypt communications. Ergo, to outlaw end-to-end encryption. Yes, we’re back here again. You’d be forgiven for thinking politicians lacked a long-term memory.

Effective encryption might be a politically convenient scapegoat to kick around in the wake of a terror attack — given it can be used to detract attention from big picture geopolitical failures of governments. And from immediate on the ground intelligence failures — whether those are due to poor political direction, or a lack of resources, or bad decision-making/prioritization by overstretched intelligence agency staff. Pointing the finger of blame at technology companies’ use of encryption is a trivial diversion tactic to detract from wider political and intelligence failures with much more complex origins.

(On the intelligence failures point, questions certainly need to be asked, given that French and Belgian intelligence agencies apparently knew about the jihadi backgrounds of perpetrators of the Paris attacks. Yet weren’t, apparently, targeting them closely enough to prevent Saturday’s attack. And all this despite France having hugely draconian counter-terrorism digital surveillance laws…)

But seeking to outlaw technology tools that are used by the vast majority of people to protect the substance of law-abiding lives is not just bad politics, it’s dangerous policy.

Mandating vulnerabilities be built into digital communications opens up an even worse prospect: new avenues for terrorists and criminals to exploit. As officials are busy spinning the notion that terrorism is all-but only possible because of the rise of robust encryption, consider this: if the public is deprived of its digital privacy — with terrorism applied as the justification to strip out the robust safeguard of strong encryption — then individuals become more vulnerable to acts of terrorism, given their communications cannot be safeguarded from terrorists. Or criminals. Or fraudsters. Or anyone incentivized by malevolent intent.

If you want to speculate on fearful possibilities, think about terrorists being able to target individuals at will via legally-required-to-be insecure digital services. If you think terror tactics are scary right now, think about terrorists having the potential to single out, track and terminate anyone at will based on whatever twisted justification fits their warped ideology — perhaps after that person expressed views they do not approve of in an online forum.

In a world of guaranteed insecure digital services it’s a far more straightforward matter for a terrorist to hack into communications to obtain the identity of a person they deem a target, and to use other similarly perforated technology services to triangulate and track someone’s location to a place where they can be made the latest victim of a new type of hyper-targeted, mass surveillance-enabled terrorism. Inherently insecure services could also be more easily compromised by terrorists to broadcast their own propaganda, or send out phishing scams, or otherwise divert attention en masse.

The only way to protect against these scenarios is to expand the reach of properly encrypted services. To champion the cause of safeguarding the public’s personal data and privacy, rather than working to undermine it — and undermining the individual freedoms the West claims to be so keen to defend in the process.

While, when it comes to counter terrorism strategy, what’s needed is more intelligent targeting, not more mass measures that treat everyone as a potential suspect and deluge security agencies in an endless churn of irrelevant noise. Even the robust end-to-end encryption that’s now being briefed against as a ‘terrorist-enabling evil’ by shadowy officials on both sides of the Atlantic can be compromised at the level of an individual device. There’s no guaranteed shortcut to achieve that. Nor should there be — that’s the point. It takes sophisticated, targeted work.

But blanket measures to compromise the security of the many in the hopes of catching out the savvy few are even less likely to succeed on the intelligence front. We have mass surveillance already, and we also have blood on the streets of Paris once again. Encryption is just a convenient scapegoat for wider policy failures of an industrial surveillance complex.

So let’s not be taken in by false flags flown by anonymous officials trying to mask bad political decision-making. And let’s redouble our efforts to fight bad policy which seeks to entrench a failed ideology of mass surveillance — instead of focusing intelligence resources where they are really needed; honing in on signals, not drowned out by noise.

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