Paris Attacks Renew Call for Access to Encrypted Messages

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  • U.S. officials want capability to collect intelligence
  • Companies oppose efforts to weaken technology services

How Terrorists Use Technology to Communicate

The bloodshed in Paris led U.S. officials Monday to renew calls for limits on technology that prevents governments from spying on phone conversations, text messages and e-mails.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she asked Silicon Valley companies to help law enforcement and intelligence agencies access communications that have been encrypted -- or scrambled to evade surveillance -- if terrorists are using the tools to plan attacks.

“I have asked for help. And I haven’t gotten any help,” Feinstein said Monday in an interview with MSNBC. “If you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children, to strike innocents, whether it’s at a game in a stadium, in a small restaurant in Paris, take down an airliner, that’s a big problem.”

The debate over using encryption illustrates how the pendulum of balancing security and privacy swings in response to events. Companies such as Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. incorporated stronger encryption in their products after revelations of U.S. spying were exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Now the tables have turned.

Apple and Google on Monday didn’t respond to requests for comment on the issue. A Yahoo spokeswoman declined to comment. In the past, the companies have argued that governments can obtain evidence through other means, such as informants.

International Hunt

CIA Director John Brennan and other top U.S. national security officials stopped short of calling for new restrictions on Monday, but said terrorism suspects are using technologies to hide their planning and operations from law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

“There are a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now that make it exceptionally difficult -- both technically as well as legally -- for intelligence security services to have insight that they need," Brennan said at a Washington event.

Brennan said he hopes the Paris attacks will serve as "a wake-up call" for European governments who have been critical of spy programs.

The comments come amid an international hunt for clues in the attacks in Paris that killed or injured about 480 people from 19 nations and that officials believe were orchestrated by the Islamic State. Brennan warned that the group likely has more attacks "in the pipeline."

Apps, Playstation

Investigators in France are still piecing together how three coordinated teams of gunmen and suicide bombers managed to create carnage in one of Europe’s most heavily policed cities. So far, five of the seven assailants who died have been identified -- four of them French citizens, and one believed to be a Syrian who entered Europe as an asylum-seeker.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said that terrorists are using encryption to communicate -- on everything from apps to gaming systems. Last week, Belgium’s deputy prime minister said that "the most difficult communication between these terrorists is via PlayStation 4."

Speaking at a Politico event in Brussels, Jan Jambon added that "it’s very, very difficult for our services -- not only Belgian services but international services-- to decrypt the communication that is done via PlayStation 4.”

Players using Sony’s popular gaming system can communicate via direct messages or by voice. A Buzzfeed story said that players, who can be located anywhere in the world, have found even more elaborate ways to communicate, including using "weapons during a game to send a spray of bullets onto a wall, spelling out whole sentences to each other."

Balancing Privacy

Several U.S. officials, including Lynch, declined to say whether the operatives who carried out the attacks in Paris were able to plan without being detected by using encryption, which scrambles communications and requires a special code that can only be unlocked with a secret key.

Lynch told reporters in Washington that federal authorities were working with U.S. communications companies to find solutions to the problem.

"Terrorists use any number of means to communicate, including some encrypted means," she told reporters in Washington. “This is an issue in which we recognize not only the importance of encryption but also the need to do everything we can to protect the American people. As we stated, we are pursuing a number of options. We are in discussions with industry looking for ways in which they can lawfully provide us information while also preserving privacy."

‘Going Dark’

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and other national security officials have been publicly warning for years that investigators are limited when suspects use technology to conceal their operations, such as using private online forums, apps that encrypt e-mails and hidden websites. It’s a problem that law enforcement officials refer to as "going dark."

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton on Monday called on technology companies to help investigators, although he didn’t specify exactly how. Technology has been "purposefully designed by our manufactures so that even they claim they cannot get into their own devices after they’ve built them," Bratton said on MSNBC.

"They need to work with us right now," Bratton said. "In many respects, they’re working against us."

No ‘Keys’

Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Monday that “You can’t stop what you cannot see.”

“The dark space of the Internet is becoming a breeding ground for
terrorist communications, recruitment and plotting,” said McCaul, a Texas Republican. “Our inability to monitor encrypted messages on social media apps, and the terrorists’ awareness of that, compounds the danger America and the West face.”

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on MSNBC Monday that "it’s time we had another key that would be kept safe and only revealed by means of a court order."

Privacy advocates pushed back against the arguments, saying restrictions wouldn’t make Americans safer.

“Any attempt to mandate back doors or prohibit the technology altogether would basically amount to trying to outlaw math, and any attempt to do so will fail to make us safer against terrorism, while making us all much less safe online and also threatening our digital economy," said Kevin Bankston, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, in an e-mail.

‘Political Values’

"In the end, we can hurt ourselves much more than the terrorists can hurt us," Bankston said. "Indeed, that’s their entire strategy -- to make us injure ourselves, our political values, our economies, our security -- in our attempt to injure them."

Technology is also advancing in such a way that products such as apps and online services have become available that don’t allow any access to decoding “keys” -- or “back doors” -- so the communications companies couldn’t turn over unencrypted information even if ordered by the courts.

Stopping attacks from ISIS won’t depend only on intelligence but also on eliminating safe havens for terrorists in Syria and Iraq, said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

"It’s too early, I think, to say, in terms of the attack in Paris to what extent these terrorists may have used encrypted communications," Schiff said on NPR’s Morning Edition. "Even with the best of intelligence resources there are still vulnerabilities, and ultimately, it’s going to require us to eliminate that sanctuary in Iraq and Syria."

(An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for Belgium’s deputy prime minister.)