One 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.