The days following the attacks on Paris have been marked by mourning, condemnation, reprisal attacks in Iraq and northern Syria – and a coordinated effort by intelligence officials and law enforcement to link the attacks with strong communications encryption developed by the technology industry following Edward Snowden’s leaks.
In the U.S. and Europe, intelligence officials including CIA Director John Brennan and politicians such as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California leveled their aim at Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Google and WhatsApp for developing widespread communications platforms that cannot be decrypted or accessed without the user’s consent. The new operating systems for Apple and Android smartphones and tablets are designed so that not even the companies themselves can obtain data from users without their consent.
The basis of the pushback against encryption stemmed from unsubstantiated reports that the cell that carried out the Paris attacks used a Sony PlayStation 4 gaming console. The New York Times recently removed an article that quoted anonymous officials’ assertions that encrypted communications had been used to plan the Paris attacks.
On Monday, Brennan made a direct allusion to post-Snowden changes in communications technology and American law that have handicapped intelligence agencies’ ability to watch and target potential terrorists.
“In the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of hand-wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try and uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions taken that make our ability, collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging,” he said.
The concerted effort by officials to reorient the political and policy debate toward encryption and privacy – and not at the failure of French and Belgian intelligence services to act on two tips about one of the Paris attackers passed on by Turkish counterparts – does not occur in a vacuum.
The law enforcement community has long been searching for a wedge to try to change the tenor of the public debate over privacy and surveillance since Snowden’s leaks about the mass surveillance programs in 2013.
At last month’s annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group of senior law enforcement officials, including FBI Director James Comey, discussed strategies on when and how to initiate a coordinated public relations push against post-Snowden privacy safeguards for consumers.
“The logic of strong encryption is that it will inevitably affect huge swathes of our work,” Comey said. “In fact, I think the privacy advocates would say that it’s their intention that it affect large swathes of our work, that people’s papers and effects be in a place where they are unavailable to the government, even with a court order.”
In his remarks, Comey urged local law enforcement leaders to add their voices to the pushback against strong encryption and privacy measures enacted after the Snowden leaks.
“This (issue) overwhelmingly affects law enforcement trying to deal with domestic violence, drug crime, human trafficking, gangs, car crashes – trying to keep communities safe,” he said.
In a rebuke to proencryption segments of the technology world, which has tangled with American law enforcement over communications encryption since the 1990s, Comey stated that “there isn’t a crypto war” and that the “lower temperature” of the public conversation over privacy two years out from the Snowden revelations will work to law enforcement’s benefit from a policy perspective.
At the same panel, titled, “Going Dark: Data, Privacy & Public Safety,” political consultant Benjamin Bawden told the audience that “for a lot of young agencies, the time is right” to start speaking publicly about the problems that consumer privacy protections pose to law enforcement.
“When you encounter a problem, start talking about it – we should expect a lot more cops going public about suspects ‘going dark,’ ” Bawden said.
New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance has been one of the most outspoken prosecutors in the U.S. about the new problems presented by stronger encryption on smartphones and computers.
At the conference, Kenn Kern, chief of staff for the DA’s investigation division, shared his office’s experiences unsuccessfully lobbying legislators over privacy matters.
“Folks in Silicon Valley have a huge wind behind them, thanks to Snowden,” Kern said. “It’s so critical that when sitting down with these senators to have local law enforcement with a list of examples, specific phones that we couldn’t crack because of encryption,” he said. “We have to change the conversation with concrete examples.”