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Recently there have been increasingly vocal calls for weakening encryption heard around the world, with the strongest of them in the US. Federal authorities claim that weakened encryption could have prevented the San Bernardino shooting and other atrocities. It seems, however, that intelligence agencies are not utilising the data already at their disposal, and it is far from certain breaking encryption would assist them in performing their jobs.
“There is in fact no evidence that this or any of these … attacks could have been prevented by regulation of encryption technology,” writes Rita Katz in an article published in the Washington Post. Katz is the director of the SITE Intelligence Group who has spent nearly two decades studying jihadists.
Elton Simpson, one of perpetrators of the 3 Mat attack in Garland, Texas “exchanged 109 [encrypted] messages with an overseas terrorist” just before the attack, said FBI Director James Comey to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Comey was arguing for the weakening of encryption. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that Simpson used Twitter – an unencrypted platform – to communicate with several high-profile terrorists. He was also known to the FBI from previous terror-related investigations.
The incitement for the attack came from one of Simpson’s Twitter connections, and was discovered using open-source information by SITE. It was reported to the FBI a week prior to the attack, but the agency failed to prevent it. While the encrypted messages were discovered only after the attack, the open-source communication was available long before it. Unfortunately, “the FBI is reluctant to recognize open-source as an important — arguably the most important — tool to track jihadists online,” writes Katz.
It has long been established that ISIS – and other groups – are adept at using the newest digital tools at their disposal. They rank and recommend different services for their followers to use. Curtailing one service would only lead jihadists to use another quicker than authorities can respond. It would be a whack-a-mole game intelligence services would struggle to win. What’s more, outlawing or weakening encryption would only sabotage the security of law abiding citizens. There is no reason to believe that those who are willing to kill for their beliefs would be deterred from employing illegal means to achieve their aims. Outlawing the mathematical algorithms used for encryption would be futile, as would be enforcement attempts.
The most important issues at hand are why are intelligence agencies, and the FBI most of all, so reluctant to use data already at their disposal; and, why, when they already have the data, are they so inept at utilising it. Many atrocities could have been prevented had the intelligence community done its due diligence in following up on traditional leads, had it employed readily available tools to analyse data – and fostered the development of new tools to do so better.
Currently, authorities are attempting to make our digital lives – soon to be indistinguishable from our “real” lives” – less secure. Weakening encryption would jeopardise everything from online banking, to patient confidentiality, to the very systems that protect critical infrastructure. The “government must first know how to utilize the mass amount of data it has been collecting and to improve its monitoring of jihadist activity online,” writes Katz.