Paris attacks: SMS undermines anti-encryption lobby

19 Nov 2015

The ongoing battle by western governments to do away with encrypted messaging took on a whole new aspect in recent days, after terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut led many to claim that hidden messaging played a key role in allowing the perpetrators to communicate. That, though, doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Following the Paris terrorist attacks in which 129 were killed last week, reports have emerged that French police found an unlocked phone outside one of the crime scenes containing an SMS message that read, “On est parti on commence”. (‘Let’s go, we’re starting).

The message also reportedly included a map of the Bataclan, the location where the phone was found and  the scene of the largest death toll of the attacks.

Should this SMS report be true, then it completely negates calls from high-profile US and UK officials to do away with encryption.

UK taking a closer look

In the UK, the Investigatory Powers Bill that passed recently is seemingly being supplemented by further, extensive investment in cyber powers, again due to fears of Islamic extremism.

Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, went so far as to shut down access to certain public channels, amid claims that IS operatives were hiding behind encryption.

Meanwhile, in the US, the CIA recently rolled out its big names on the topic, with both current and former directors of the spying agency blaming encryption and, more directly, Edward Snowden, for them not detecting the plotting of the Paris attacks.

Current CIA director John Brennan suggested Snowden’s leaks led to “handwringing”, which slows the spy agency’s ability to track plots. Former director John Woolsey, never one to shy away from a big claim, said Snowden has “blood on his hands” in the wake of the atrocities.

Opportunism at its worst

However, rather than these being reflective, contextualised arguments they are, in fact, a policy of timing and opportunism.

A few months ago, The Washington Post got its hands on an email sent by the CIA’s lawyer, Robert Pitt, which the news agency alleges said although “the legislative environment is very hostile today” towards mass encryption of online messaging, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement”.

Spies will be spies. Slow hand clap.

Of course, it’s not just an agency thing. Encryption and Snowden, combined, have been blamed by a number of influential people, such as former White House secretary Dana Perino.

Revolving backdoors

There are already cases in the US calling for smartphone manufacturers to install backdoors in their software, something dismissed as foolish by a panel of security experts at Web Summit earlier this month – with Kaspersky Labs’ Evgeny Chereshnev and AVG’s Todd Simpson in agreement that backdoors can’t be the sole ownership of good guys. They let bad guys in, too.

This sentiment was shared by Apple CEO Tim Cook recently, who said: “There are bad governments in the world and bad people in the world and if you leave a backdoor in software there’s no such thing as a backdoor for the good guys only.”

It’s essentially coming down to a public vs private battle. States want in on your messaging, companies want to offer customers some level of privacy. It certainly isn’t a straightforward discussion to have, with the merits of both options easily argued and the pitfalls countless and worrying.

Either way, encryption arguments are likely to continue indefinitely as governments hungry for metadata seek greater powers to monitor both domestic, and foreign, citizenry.

That is despite the fact that surveillance capabilities have never been more advanced – which is information we can actually credit Snowden for.

Paris image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic