Tracking Islamic State Plots Impeded by Encryption, Clapper Says

  • DNI chief calls group `most sophisticated' user of scrambling
  • Officials must `thread the needle' on privacy versus security

James Clapper.

Photographer: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Islamic State is "very security-conscious" and a prolific user of strong encryption technology, posing a major challenge as the U.S. works to uncover and disrupt plots by the terrorist group, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said.

Clapper said the group uses end-to-end encryption, which refers to messaging applications or other services that secure communications when they are sent and received with scrambled code that can be unlocked only with a special key.

"ISIL is the most sophisticated --by far -- user of the Internet and the technologies that are available privately to ensure end-to-end encryption," Clapper, using an acronym for the group, told reporters Monday at an event in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "That is a major inhibitor to discerning plotting going on principally by ISIL, or others."

The increasing availability of strong encryption has stoked a fierce debate inside the U.S., pitting officials and agencies responsible for security against technology companies such as Apple Inc. that view the technology as essential to helping their customers and users secure personal and business information.

‘Find a Balance’

Clapper said he supports strong encryption but that he and other U.S. officials are trying to "thread the needle so that we ensure privacy and security." He declined to say whether the Obama administration would support draft legislation in the Senate that would require companies to comply with court orders giving law enforcement agencies access to data by releasing it from encryption.

"Somehow we need to find a balance here," Clapper said. "I don’t know the technicalities of how we might arrive there."

Apple, Google and other companies began offering more and stronger encryption after former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden exposed extensive government spying.

Snowden Impact

The National Security Agency estimates that the Snowden revelations pushed the development and adoption of commercial encryption technology forward by seven years, Clapper said. It was the first time a U.S. official offered such a calculation.

"It has had, and is having, a profound effect on our ability to collect, particularly against terrorists," Clapper said. "From our standpoint, it’s not a good thing."

The FBI served Apple with a court order in February compelling the company to help break into an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife carried out the deadly December attack in San Bernardino, California. Apple resisted and the FBI dropped the case last month after saying it bought a tool from a private organization it hasn’t identified to break into the phone.

Clapper declined to comment on how the FBI got into the phone. The FBI has said an entity it hasn’t identified helped it hack into the phone, and agency Director James Comey suggested last week that it paid more than $1.3 million for the hacking tool that won’t work on newer phones.

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