Encryption Under Siege?

As so often happens, tragedy leads to the five stages of grief, and it’s a natural element of the ‘anger’ phase to find a scapegoat for all those seething emotions.  Especially now, since those responsible for last week’s Paris attacks, the fecal stains of humanity, have reportedly been given the quick deaths that were far too good for them, different targets of ire arise to share the blame.  Lax security, refugees, even encryption have proven to be fair game in the past several days.

And yet, those who have used the atrocities to continue warning of the dangers of encryption seem to have hit a snag.  Different rumors and reports were coming out since last Friday, like how the terrorists formulated their plot and communicated with each other over the Playstation Network of Sony’s Playstation 4 console; alternately, that they had used encrypted communication platforms to fly under the radar during their plan.  Making encryption enemy number one isn’t new.  Earlier this year, in fact, I referenced politicians like Jeb Bush and David Cameron pushing for expanded governmental surveillance capabilities, Jeb stating his belief that the balance between civil liberties and security had swung too far towards the former for law enforcement to adequately monitor threats.  FBI Director James Comey spoke last year about the dangers of “going dark.”

Since the attacks, many have weighed in with a similar stance, with New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton saying that phones and apps that “cannot be accessed either by the manufacturer or, more importantly, by us in law enforcement even equipped with the search warrants and judicial authority” pose a risk to law enforcement’s capabilities.  I said in times past that I sympathized with the concerns for keeping people safe, and the same still holds, above all in times like these.

However, these early reports are turning out to be quite incorrect, as investigations reveal more information.  The PS4 theory: nope.  Encrypted platforms: seemingly bunk.  Emerging news suggests, instead, that the cretins kept in contact via simple, unsecured SMS, and that the data on their smartphones was not encrypted.  This information comes after investigators recovered one of the attackers’ phones in the trash outside the Bataclan concert hall, and accessed an SMS message.  None of this is to say that these terrorists don’t use encryption at all, but vilifying a tool that plays its own part in keeping people safe is not the answer.

By: Jonathan Weicher