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The Privacy Advisor | After Paris Attacks, Tech Privacy Debate Rages Related reading: New French Law Draws U.S. Comparisons



As Europe and much of the civilized world continue to grapple with last Friday’s attacks in Paris, a debate between government officials and privacy advocates is raging on both sides of the Atlantic. Intelligence and several government officials are arguing that privacy protections—both in the U.S. and abroad—have gone too far, affecting law enforcement’s ability to track and stop terrorists. More specifically, many argue that the Snowden revelations and encrypted communications technology have aided the attackers.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennen said he hopes last Friday’s horrific attacks are “a wake-up call” for European governments that have criticized digital surveillance. “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,” he said.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said terrorists take advantage of encrypted services to communicate, but she declined to say whether decrypting communications would have helped officials prevent the attacks. “We are in discussions with industry looking for ways in which they can lawfully provide us information while also preserving privacy,” she said. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said, “it’s time we had another key that would be kept safe and only revealed by means of a court order.”

The Wall Street Journal reports on how the Islamic State teaches its followers to thwart electronic surveillance. The terrorist group has reportedly created a “tech-savvy division of commanders who issue tutorials to sympathizers about the most secure and least expensive ways of communicating.”

A separate report for The Daily Beast contends that the Islamic State is urging followers to use an encrypted messaging service called Telegram. Yet the two Russian brothers who created the service said last year that the “number one reason for me to support and help launch Telegram was to build a means of communication that can’t be accessed by the Russian security agencies.”

However, Open Technology Institute (OTI) at New America Director Kevin Bankston said there is no evidence that encrypted communications were used by the Paris attackers. “Regardless of whether they did or didn’t use encryption, the simple fact is that outlawing the use of encryption won’t stop terrorists from simply engineering their own encryption algorithms,” he added. “In the end, we can hurt ourselves much more than the terrorists can hurt us,” he said to Bloomberg Business. “Indeed, that’s their entire strategy—to make us injure ourselves, our political values, our economies, our security—in our attempt to injure them.”

In a column for the Huffington Post, Alexander Howard lists three reasons for why the privacy-versus-security debate is wrong. On Sunday, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell said the encryption debate had been “defined by Edward Snowden … and the concern about privacy,” but that future discussions will “be defined by what happened in Paris.” Howard points out, “Whether the public knows it or not, we're already using encryption to send email, access our health records, file our taxes and buy goods and services online. We depend on encryption to keep our personal data safe, just as we depend on locks offline.”

A column for the MIT Technology Review goes further, stating that arguments saying encryption helped the Paris attackers are not based on evidence. “Many security and encryption experts are shaking their heads today because claims that encryption is crippling intelligence agencies and law enforcement have become common over the past year or so,” the column argues. “Now as then, these claims are presented without solid evidence.”

More broadly, in a column for Slate, Marcy Wheeler contends that metadata surveillance did not thwart the Paris attacks either. “The metadata surveillance system appears to have failed before it even got to the encryption stage,” she argues.

European Response

Conservatives in the European Parliament are now calling for the suspension of the Data Protection Directive trilogues as well as a database to record the personal details of everyone flying in the EU. MEP Axel Voss, who serves as EPP Group shadow rapporteur for the proposed Directive, said, “The Paris terrorist attacks have shown that the security of our citizens has to prevail over bureaucracy! These negotiations are going in the wrong direction and we have to stop them now and call on the European Commission to come forward with a modified proposal which reflects reality!”

However, Sophie in’ t Veld, the shadow rapporteur for the liberal ALDE said French and Belgian authorities are attempting to set up a “smokescreen” for their intelligence failures, adding, “It is so sexy setting up big IT systems, whereas what we really need is human intelligence, people on the ground who know the people in the community.”

During an event held by the Brookings Institution on Monday, European Justice Commissioner Vera Jourová remained optimistic about a new transatlantic data-transfer agreement, but said government surveillance is a major part of the negotiations.

“This is an attack on our values and basic principles,” she said of the Paris attacks. “And what we value is our freedom. And what is part of our freedom is the protection of privacy.”

photo credit: Paris en miniature via photopin (license)


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  • comment Steve Sanford • Nov 17, 2015
    Straw men are always built from events to support one side or the other.  Just look at Gun control in the U.S.  Hopefully we will not let the takers of our privacy prevail in the name of stopping attacks.  They have no valid reason to claim that spying on everyone and decrypting  our normal traffic will garner the results they claim.  They cannot point to even one instance where an attack has been stopped due to electronic gathering of all communications.  Better to get a handle on the human factor.
  • comment John Berard • Nov 17, 2015
    Straw men, deflection and mis-direction are three long-standing methods of public debate. That's no different here. What's missing is the likelihood that whether Snowden leaked or Silicon Valley made encryption a business model or Schrems sued Facebook, the bad guys will always focus on work-arounds, the good guys will always be understaffed and the rest of us will mostly respond to our personal circumstance, so if the vote comes down to your privacy and my security, you lose. It was the 9/11 Commission that taught us we can know everything but not understand it.  In the last 15 years our focus has been on knowing even more. We now need to understand it.  That takes human intelligence.  In the latest James Bond movie, Spectre, M utters a line in defense of his assassin.  "A license to kill is also a license not to kill."  It puts people at the top of the intelligence food chain.  Battling over encryption seems a mis-allocation of resources.
  • comment Geoffrey Nathan • Nov 17, 2015
    In an extremely long, but well-written article Glenn Greenwald (Snowden's bulldog) makes the case beautifully:
    <a href="" rel="nofollow">The Intercept</a>
  • comment Geoffrey Nathan • Nov 17, 2015
    Apologies--either I munged the HTML or the site did. Here's an unencrypted version of the URL: