The Paris Attacks Were An Intelligence Community Failure, Not An 'Encryption' Problem
from the let's-put-the-blame-where-it-belongs dept
And yet, as we noted yesterday, it now appears that the attackers communicated via unencrypted SMS and did little to hide their tracks. On top of that, as Ryan Gallagher at the Intercept notes, some of the attackers were already known to law enforcement and the intelligence community as possible problems. But they were still able to plan and carry out the attacks. Even more to the point, Gallagher points out that after looking at the 10 most recent high profile terrorist attacks, the same can be said for each of them:
The Intercept has reviewed 10 high-profile jihadi attacks carried out in Western countries between 2013 and 2015..., and in each case some or all of the perpetrators were already known to the authorities before they executed their plot. In other words, most of the terrorists involved were not ghost operatives who sprang from nowhere to commit their crimes; they were already viewed as a potential threat, yet were not subjected to sufficient scrutiny by authorities under existing counterterrorism powers. Some of those involved in last week’s Paris massacre, for instance, were already known to authorities; at least three of the men appear to have been flagged at different times as having been radicalized, but warning signs were ignored.Nicholas Weaver, writing over at Lawfare, has a really fantastic article over "the limits of the panopticon" that basically puts all of this into perspective, noting (1) with so many "known radicals" to follow, there is no way for the intelligence community/law enforcement to actually get the information to predict these attacks and (2) there are plenty of ways for people who know each other to communicate, even without encryption, that won't increase suspicion.
In other words, all the calls for increased surveillance and less encryption really seem like a smoke screen by an intelligence community that failed. It's entirely possible that their job is an impossible one, but at the very least we should be dealing in that reality. Instead, the intelligence community that failed is doing everything possible to shift the blame to encryption and Snowden, rather than admitting the fact that they knew who these people were, that encryption wasn't the issue and that maybe doubling down on those policies won't help at all. Of course, it might take some of the pressure off of them for failing to prevent the attack.
First, the sheer volume of “known radicals” –at least 5000—makes prospective monitoring impossible. How does one effectively monitor 5000 individuals and identify who among them will pose an actual threat? After all, most never will. It didn’t matter that Salah Abdeslam used his own name and credit card when booking his hotel room. Abdeslam was simply one of thousands identified as maybe or maybe not posing a threat.
Even reducing the volume of targets may be insufficient. Assuming the authorities were able to focus on 500 or 50 individuals instead of 5000, the communication patterns of a terrorist cell are remarkably similar to those of any family or group. Unless authorities are aware that an individual is actively (rather than potentially) dangerous, electronic monitoring may provide little prospective benefit, unless they can intercept the contents of a communication that makes a threat clear.
But the communication content of an even minimally proficient terrorist provides little value. Human codes are often employed. We now know that final coordination took place using unencrypted SMS, but unless one already has already identified the terrorist cell and at least some basic details of a plot, tracking an SMS that says "On est parti on commence" (which roughly translates to “Let’s go, we’re starting”) provides little actionable intelligence.
Still, as we've noted, almost every case of a "prevented" attack hasn't involved actual plotters, but rather the fake cooked-up plots by the FBI itself. So, we seem to have a law enforcement and intelligence community that is terrible at stopping real plots, but really good at putting unrelated people in jail for made-up plots. And now they want more power for surveillance and to undermine the encryption that keeps us all safe?