Terrorism, Encryption, And The Nanny State

Terrorism, Encryption, And The Nanny State

Image credit: Thomas Leuthard

Image credit: Thomas Leuthard

It’s a rhetoric that’s become all too familiar by now. A terrorist attack occurs, resulting in the loss of countless innocent lives. People all around the world are left reeling, desperately grasping at the reasons something like this could happen – and desperately seeking a way to prevent it from happening again.

What none of them want to admit is that the measures proposed won’t do anything to stop these kinds of attacks.

The most recent crisis on the tip of everyone’s lips is the shooting in San Bernardino. An atrocity, and one that should have been preventable. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families, and we hope that they never have to experience such pain again.

Over the past several months, a number of politicians – most recently Senator Dianne Fenstein – have stepped up lobbying to provide governments and law enforcements with the means to ‘pierce’ through strong encryption. For all intents and purposes, many in law enforcement appear to support this.  

Unfortunately, they’ve all cast their eyes in the wrong direction. To use a metaphor, they’re sifting through caves when they should be looking at the sky. And if they’re allowed to continue, we’re all going to suffer from it.

There is a telling lack of evidence, for instance, that encryption played a role in either the Paris terror attacks or the recent shooting in California. In the case of the former, it’s actually quite the opposite. The terrorists responsible for the tragedy in Paris communicated with one another through plaintext. Equipping law enforcement officials with the means to break through security protocols that protect everything from financial information to sensitive personal data would have accomplished nothing.

That anyone should insist otherwise betrays a troubling degree of ignorance about how modern technology actually functions. It becomes even more troubling that some of the leading proponents of this foolish course are leaders; government and law enforcement officials. Consider this quote from Feinstein, who cited Paris as a reason for her push against encryption:

“I have concern about a PlayStation that my grandchildren might use and a predator getting on the other end, and talking to them, and it’s all encrypted. I think there really is reason to have the ability, with a court order, to be able to get into that.”

Why, exactly are her grandchildren using the PlayStation Network unattended? Where are their parents? And how exactly would giving governments the ability to listen in on the conversations of her kin prevent predators from targeting them?

The answer is simple: it wouldn’t. To be blunt, there is literally no benefit to crippling strong encryption: not for law enforcement, not for governments, and most importantly, not for regular citizens. There is one group that will benefit if people like Feinstein manage to push their agenda:


“Forcing US companies and makers of encryption software to install backdoors and hand over encryption keys to the government would not solve the problem of terrorist suspects using products that are made in countries not controlled by US laws,” writes Wired’s Kim Zetter. “The arguments for backdoors and forced decryption often fail to note the many other methods law enforcement and intelligence agencies can use to get the information they need.”

“As security experts have long pointed out,” she continues, “backdoors and encryption keys held by a service provider or law enforcement agencies don’t just make terrorists and criminals open to surveillance from Western authorities with authorization—they make everyone vulnerable to the same type of surveillance from unauthorized entities, such as everyday hackers and spy agencies from Russia, China, and other countries.”

Simply put, there is little to be gained from focusing on encryption to fight terrorist attacks. Other approaches would be far more productive. Encryption is nothing more than an easy scapegoat.

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