parispeacesignOne of the more obnoxious and disgusting things about tragedies like the recent Paris attacks is the way people with causes invariably co-opt the tragedies for the benefit of those causes, even if the causes are barely related to the tragedies. The recent Paris attacks are no exception. For example, even though I’m personally in favor of private gun ownership, it makes me sick every time I see some gun nut spout off half-baked propaganda about how it would have helped prevent the attacks in France.

And just as bad are the people who are calling for more backdoors into encryption in the wake of those attacks—especially because it’s blatantly transparent that they were already poised to do so anyway. In an article written in September, the Washington Post points to an August e-mail from Robert S. Litt, general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Although “the legislative environment is very hostile today,” the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, said to colleagues in an August e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

There is value, he said, in “keeping our options open for such a situation.”

Another quote from the same story:

What is clear, though, is that the law enforcement argument is “just not carrying the day,” said a second senior official, who, like several others, was not authorized to speak on the record. “People are still not persuaded this is a problem. People think we have not made the case. We do not have the perfect example where you have the dead child or a terrorist act to point to, and that’s what people seem to claim you have to have.”

And given that we live in a technological society now, pretty much any terror attack can be “shown” to have a technological component, regardless of whether it actually did. Did ISIS members sneak into Europe disguised as refugees? Given that many refugees use smartphones, and some refugees are ISIS, that means smartphones are now terror tools!

Just how desperate are pundits to paint technology as tools of terror? Forbes erroneously claimed terrorists were using PlayStation 4 game consoles to communicate, and the story went viral because people were so willing to believe it.

We’re seeing the same thing happening now. Wired reports on members of the intelligence community racing to blame the Paris terror attacks on Edward Snowden and the reluctance of tech companies to implement backdoors.

“We don’t know yet, but I think what we’re going to learn is that [the attackers] used these encrypted apps, right?,” [former CIA deputy director Michael Morell] said on [CBS This Morning] Monday morning. “Commercial encryption, which is very difficult, if not impossible, for governments to break. The producers of this encryption do not produce the key, right, for either them to open this stuff up or for them to give to governments to open this stuff up. This is the result of Edward Snowden and the public debate. I now think we’re going to have another public debate about encryption, and whether government should have the keys, and I think the result may be different this time as a result of what’s happened in Paris.”

(Isn’t Edward Snowden such a convenient bogeyman? He’s a handy, visible target on which to pin everything from terrorism to piracy of e-books. To paraphrase Voltaire, if he didn’t exist, we’d have had to invent him. Is it any wonder he doesn’t believe he could get a fair trial here?)

Wired goes on to enumerate a number of reasons this argument is all wet—terrorists could homebrew their own encryption without backdoors, for example, and backdoors make everyone vulnerable to breaches, not just terrorists—but I would suggest that even taking the argument seriously enough to counter it is giving it too much credit. Again, the intelligence community specifically planned their communication strategy for the next terrorist attack they could blame on cryptography. No matter what happened, they were going to figure out some way to spin it in their favor.

Not that you see this in most major news coverage. Even the New York Times, which opens its story on such a positive note as

American and French officials say there is still no definitive evidence to back up their presumption that the terrorists who massacred 129 people in Paris used new, difficult-to-crack encryption technologies to organize the plot.

then begins the next paragraph with “But…” and goes on to foment paranoia about how many powerful encryption technologies are free and easily available. (Heck, even that first paragraph uses a common rhetorical device to plant the seeds of the opposing assumption. “There is no definitive evidence John Smith has been beating his wife…”)

Ironically, Europe, the very place where the terror attacks took place, is considerably more skeptical about privacy and security issues than the US is. Just look at the recent privacy controversy about US-based companies exporting user data from Europe. If the government were able to force the implementation of crypto backdoors, anything with such backdoors would instantly lose its entire European market. So, similarly ironically, some of the companies that draw the most complaints about data aggregation and user privacy (Google, Facebook, Apple, etc.) are at the same time on the side of strong encryption advocates, because they know where their French bread is buttered.

In the end, I suppose we owe Orwell no small amount of respect and admiration for how clearly he saw things almost three quarters of a century ago in 1984. He couldn’t even have imagined the technologies we have today, but he predicted only too well how governments would use any excuse to maximize their influence over ordinary citizens with them. Even if the technologies are different than he might have expected, in a broader sense it’s all coming true.


  1. Every system has its counter, so what’s done has to be done with some thought, knowing there will be gaps.

    Mass shootings are quickly stopped by someone who is there with a pistol, typically with a death toll under four. That isn’t perfect, but it beats turning our society into a police state. Those killers are also directed to other locale by visible security. That’s why mass killers almost always target ‘gun-free zones.’ When I go into such places, my blood runs cold.

    Israel had a problem with terrorists targeting elementary schools until it adopted a policy of arming teachers. Then the number of attacks on those schools dropped to almost zero. Mass killers, either angry young guys or terrorists want to kill as many as they can before getting killed themselves. There’s nothing that frustrates them more than the thought of being a failed murderer, dead without taking anyone with them. Make the risk of that high, and they pick a softer target. Again, that’s not perfect, but it is better.

    Suicide bombers who suddenly blow themselves up aren’t deterred by guns, but they can be stopped by searches. The attack on the Paris soccer match would have been far worse if the terrorists had gotten inside. Instead, one was caught at the entrance by a search and the others, hearing his explosion, also blew themselves up on the outside.

    With both, you see that security measures don’t prevent deaths but they do redirect it and reduce the number of those killed.

    Intelligence gathered electronically has similar flaws. It can certainly catch the stupider sort of terrorists who talk about plans openly over phones or in email. But it can’t track those who use harder to penetrate means. It can do almost nothing to catch those clever enough to use ordinary but coded language. Make a bomb and weapons shipment an ordinary business shipment, and it sounds innocent. Make the arrival of a terrorist in Paris a visit with friends and family and nothing suspicious is seen.

    The real problem with electronic intelligence is that its a distraction from what does work:

    1. Human intelligence inside terrorist organizations or, in the case of crazy males, a more careful watch over them. The latter is hindered by the idiocy of school administrators who think a first-grader who nibbles a Pop-tart to look like a gun is a danger. He’s just a kid.

    2. Fish in the sea. Israel has very little trouble with terrorism from its own native Arab population. They’re well integrated into Israeli society and most have the sense to know they’re better off as Israelis than as citizens of any other country in the Middle East. Israel’s problems—and why they build fences and checkpoints—comes from the West Bank and Gaza, where the economies are typical of the Arab world, meaning impoverished and without hope for all but a select few. Arab politicians are free to stir up hate against Jews to distract people from that inequality—the equivalent of our “community organizers.” That’s the sea in which terrorism against Jews lives.

    Europe’s problem is that its immigrants and children of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East are far more like those of the West Bank than Israel’s Arab citizens. Europe simply isn’t like the U.S. and Israeli. It’s not merely that it doesn’t know how to integrate people from the Islamic world into its population, in many cases it is not even openly facing that it has a problem. The French whisper about police ‘no go’ zones. Parts of Malmo in Sweden are so bad, fire and medics will not respond without a police escort. A city in the UK covered up the fact that Pakistani were forcing teen girls into prostitution. The list goes on and on.

    Yet there’s a media ban on discussing such topics openly. In the UK, crimes by certain Muslim immigrants are attributed to “Asians,” as if there were a crime wave let by Japanese teen girls with “Hello Kitty” backpacks. Elsewhere, for instance in France or Sweden, crimes are attributed to “youths” which is slanders all young adults for car-burnings (France) and rapes (Sweden) that are being done almost exclusively by immigrants from the Muslim world. Everyone know that and translate those media lies into concrete terms. But by creating unmentionables, the media prevents any open discussion much less action. The results include politicians like Merkel, who thinks that problems that aren’t discussed don’t exist, as well as the rise of parties on the right who will discuss those issues and offer to do something.

    That sea of Muslim immigrant crime not dealt with: forced marriage, honor killings, car burnings, coerced prostitution, etc. then creates a criminal underworld that’s ideal for hiding terrorists. One criminal activity hides another.

    More and more, I’m suspecting the U.S. got it right over a century ago when we bashed the Irish for being drunks (they were), the Italians for their ready resort to knives (they did) and so forth. We didn’t let the Irish get away with whining about how badly their English landowners had treated them. Forced to deal with an unpleasant but true image, those groups changed and became good and prosperous citizens.

    Europe isn’t doing that with its Muslim immigrants. It’s shoving them into ghettos where assimilation is impossible. It’s covering over a lack of jobs for the unassimilated with welfare. This latest wave doesn’t want to stop in Southern Europe where the welfare payments are small. It wants to get to Germany, Sweden, and the UK where payments are large. It wants that welfare largesse. And Europe has done its best to refuse to discuss these problems, as if silence will solve them. It won’t. It will only get worse, particularly given the well-below replacement birthrates of most of those who’re culturally European.

    Terrorist attacks are merely one visible sign of those other ills. More cops, more soldiers, and more spying aren’t dealing with the fact that millions of unassimilated and radically different people create problems that can’t be papered over with words. Terrorism is a fish swimming in the sea of all those other troubles. It’s hard to find a few fish among millions that don’t look that different.

  2. I never thought I would use this quote, but a modified version fits here: “When encryption [without backdoors] is oulawed, only outlaws will have encryption.” Wired got it right when they said the terrorists could homebrew their own encryption without backdoors, because the most secure encryption algorithms are publicly known and all they would need to do is use them. In fact, if they use a one-time pad correctly there is no way to break it no matter how much computing is thrown at it.

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