In the wake of the tragic events in Paris last week encryption has continued to be a useful bogeyman for those with a voracious appetite for surveillance expansion. Like clockwork, numerous reports were quickly circulated suggesting that the terrorists used incredibly sophisticated encryption techniques, despite no evidence by investigators that this was the case. These reports varied in the amount of hallucination involved, the New York Times evenhaving to pull one such report offline. Other claims the attackers had used encrypted Playstation 4 communications also wound up being bunk.
Yet, pushed by their sources in the government, the media quickly became a sound wall of noise suggesting that encryption was hampering the government’s ability to stop these kinds of attacks. NBC was particularly breathless this week over the idea that ISIS was now running a 24 hour help desk aimed at helping its less technically proficient members understand encryption (even cults help each other use technology, who knew?). All of the reports had one central, underlying drum beat implication: Edward Snowden and encryption have made us less safe, and if you disagree the blood is on your hands.
Yet, amazingly enough, as actual investigative details emerge, it appears that most of the communications between the attackers was conducted via unencrypted vanilla SMS:
“…News emerging from Paris — as well as evidence from a Belgian ISIS raid in January — suggests that the ISIS terror networks involved were communicating in the clear, and that the data on their smartphones was not encrypted.
European media outlets are reporting that the location of a raid conducted on a suspected safe house Wednesday morning was extracted from a cellphone, apparently belonging to one of the attackers, found in the trash outside the Bataclan concert hall massacre. Le Monde reported that investigators were able to access the data on the phone, including a detailed map of the concert hall and an SMS messaging saying “we’re off; we’re starting.” Police were also able to trace the phone’s movements.
The reports note that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the “mastermind” of both the Paris attacks and a thwarted Belgium attack ten months ago, failed to use any encryption whatsoever (read: existing capabilities stopped the Belgium attacks and could have stopped the Paris attacks, but didn’t). That’s of course not to say batshit religious cults like ISIS don’t use encryption, and won’t do so going forward. Everybody uses encryption. But the point remains that to use a tragedy to vilify encryption, push for surveillance expansion, and pass backdoor laws that will make everybody less safe — is nearly as gruesome as the attacks themselves.