Overhype

by Mike Masnick


Filed Under:
encryption, evidence, journalism, paris attacks

Companies:
ny times



French Police Report On Paris Attacks Shows No Evidence Of Encryption... So NY Times Invents Evidence Itself

from the reporting! dept

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Over the weekend, the NY Times ran a big article providing a bunch of details about the Paris attacks from last year, now that the lone surviving member of those attacks has been captured in Belgium. The article is mostly based on a 55-page report put together by French antiterrorism police and given to France's Interior Minister. Someone apparently gave the report to the NY Times as well. And it does includes some interesting background info, including some previously unknown attack details. It also includes a bit about how the attacks were planned and carried out, with the most salient detail being that it's pretty clear that the team used burner phones (i.e., phones purchased just for this purpose, for a very short time, and not easily traced back to individuals):
They used only new phones that they would then discard, including several activated minutes before the attacks, or phones seized from their victims.
That's not all that surprising, of course. People have known about burner phones for ages. But the thing that stood out for me was the desperate need of the NY Times reporters to insist that there must be encryption used by the attackers, despite the near total lack of evidence of any such use. Immediately after the attacks, law enforcement and intelligence officials started blaming encryption based on absolutely nothing. Senator John McCain used it as an excuse to plan legislation that would force backdoors into encryption. And Rep. Michael McCaul insisted that the Paris attackers used the encrypted Telegram app, despite no one else saying that. In fact, for months, the only thing we'd heard was that they used unencrypted SMS to alert each other that the attacks were on, and made almost no effort to hide themselves.

But, amazingly, the NY Times takes evidence of a lack of encryption... to mean there must be encryption:
According to the police report and interviews with officials, none of the attackers’ emails or other electronic communications have been found, prompting the authorities to conclude that the group used encryption. What kind of encryption remains unknown, and is among the details that Mr. Abdeslam’s capture could help reveal.
But... that's not how encryption works. If they're using encrypted emails, the emails don't disappear. You still can see that they exist, and the metadata of who sent messages to whom remains. It's just that you can't read the contents of the emails. This is bogeyman thinking about encryption, where people think it does something it doesn't actually do. Sure, it's possible that the attackers used some sort of secretive way to communicate, but then the issue isn't encryption, but rather that they figured out how to hide the method by which they communicated. Or, you know, they just talked about stuff in person.

And then there's this:
One of the terrorists pulled out a laptop, propping it open against the wall, said the 40-year-old woman. When the laptop powered on, she saw a line of gibberish across the screen: “It was bizarre — he was looking at a bunch of lines, like lines of code. There was no image, no Internet,” she said. Her description matches the look of certain encryption software, which ISIS claims to have used during the Paris attacks.
OH MY! "A bunch of lines, like lines of code"?!?!?! Must be encryption! Or, you know, Linux. Or some other system that doesn't start with a graphical user interface. And even if it was encryption, then he wouldn't be looking at it in encrypted form. To read encrypted messages you decrypt them first. Nothing in this paragraph above makes any sense at all as "proof" of encryption. It just seems like proof of the reporters' technology ignorance.

It may very well turn out that the attackers used encryption. It very likely will be true in the future that attackers and terrorists will use encryption. But, this crazy moral panic going on these days where anything that people can't understand "must be encryption!" is reaching insane levels.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 8:04am

    Q: How is the NY Times like a hardware store?
    A: Both are filled to the rafters with tools.

    Q: How is reading the NY Times like watching a mime?
    A: Both involve someone trying to convince you that something that doesn’t exist actually does.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    BentFranklin (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 8:35am

    "Or, you know, they just talked about stuff in person."

    Terrorists communicate via personal conversations. Therefore, we must make it illegal to have personal conversations without a representative of the government present.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Arthur Moore (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 9:36am

    Re:


    Terrorists communicate via personal conversations. Therefore, we must make it illegal to have personal conversations without a representative of the government present.

    The word you're looking for is Telescreens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 9:41am

    You are under arrest

    "What for?"
    "Smoking Marijuana"
    "What? I don't do drugs.. there are no drugs here!!!"
    "Correct. Since we didn't find any, that's how we know you smoked it all"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Ninja (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 9:47am

    Hollywood man, they taught us all we need to know about computers. I'm amazed the laptop guy wasn't playing a "Doom" like game where he'd break funny shaped things on screen while critical services were deactivated around him possibly followed by shinny explosions. TECHNOLOGY MAN. It can be scary and look like Doom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Ninja (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 9:50am

    Re: You are under arrest

    "You are under arrest."
    "What for?"
    "Whatever I want."
    "What? There is no evidence of crime here!!"
    "Correct. Since we didn't find any, that's how we know you've hidden or destroyed the evidence."

    Insane and far reaching. Good thing law enforcement doesn't do that, right. Oh wait.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:03am

    Imagine a world where they might actually admit that the steps they have taken in the past to protect us from this exact sort of thing failed. That all of the spying & itty bitty rights violations in the name of safety haven't done what was promised.

    We just need a little more access, and then you can all be safe. How many times can we hear this and stop swallowing it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:05am

    Re: Re: You are under arrest

    - What are you in for?
    - Smoking imaginary Marijuana. Three years. How bout you?
    - I killed a pink elephant.
    - Man. That's cold.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:09am

    If they did manage to communicate in a hidden way instead of sending encrypted emails, then the NY Times is confused about the difference between steganography and cryptography. All the backdooring of encryption won't keep criminals and terrorists from using steganography.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:13am

    Re:

    Many people already hit that point when we invaded Iraq to find the WMDs that didn't exist in order to protect America.

    There were people decades before that who knew invading Vietnam wasn't going to do anything to protect America.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:14am

    It doesn't take a wizard to see who is a willing participant in passing government propaganda to the public. All you got to do is look at the articles coming out and then question who benefits from that type of news.

    You can thank Congress for overturning the Smith-Mundt Act with the National Defense Authorization Act that for the first time since 1948 legally allowed the government to spread it for public consumption.

    The NYT is one of those government mouthpieces for that. If nothing else, it has ruined their creditability.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:16am

    Encryption could be to blame, the security services were so busy looking for encrypted traffic that they did not have time to look at all that unencrypted traffic going past. After all, everybody knows that terrorists use the most secure encryption available when plotting their attacks, and unencrypted stuff is for unimportant things, like organizing a meeting to plot attacks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    JoeCool (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:20am

    Re:

    The most the press or cops know about steganography comes from Family Guy.

    [Inside a pet store that's being used as a front for the mob]
    Mobster: I would like a "bunny".
    Sales Mobster: What kind of "bunny"? A semi-automatic "bunny" [making a gesture like he's holding rifle] or a hand held "bunny" [making a gesture like he's holding pistol]?
    Mobster: Which ever a "bunny" you think is better for shooting a guy in the head.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Steve R. (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:25am

    Steganography - an overlooked concept

    Thanks for mentioning steganography. A concept that I had overlooked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:25am

    Re: Re: Re: You are under arrest

    What are you in for?
    - Smoking imaginary Marijuana. Three years. How bout you?
    - I killed a pink elephant.
    - Man. That's cold.

    Everyone maintained a serious mien, but everyone understood it was a farce, above all the boys of the convoy, who were the simplest sort of fellows. At the Novosibirsk Transit Prison in 1945 they greeted the prisoners with a roll call based on cases. “So and so! Article 58-1a, twenty-five years.” The chief of the convoy guard was curious: “What did you get it for?” “For nothing at all.” “You’re lying. The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.”

                —— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Архипелаг ГУЛАГ)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:30am

    We found no evidence of illegally downloaded music and movies, therefor they had to have destroyed the evidence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Steve R. (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:41am

    Fox News Continues its nonsensical "Lets Break Encryption" Tirade

    As I read this, I listened to Fox News once again asserting that Apple is being unpatriotic and "protecting" terrorists.

    Similar to what Mike wrote about the NYT: "But the thing that stood out for me was the desperate need of the NY Times reporters to insist that there must be encryption used by the attackers, despite the near total lack of evidence of any such use." Fox News seems to believe, without any positive evidence that there must be a wealth of en encryptic information on th iPhone. For all we know, there may be no information on the iPhone.

    It seems that the real purpose behind "breaking" encryption on this one iPhone, is not for the information contained, but for the precedent of being able to "break" encryption for any whimsical purpose identified by law enforcement. After, all - as Fox News puts it - we have to arrest those evil pedophiles that Apple is helping hide.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:52am

    Repeal the Patriot Act, Now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:54am

    Re: Steganography - an overlooked concept

    Writing with a bony-plated dinosaur???

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:57am

    There was no image, no Internet

    So you're saying that Neo was one of the Paris attackers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:58am

    Re:

    I'm not sure if you knew or not but that has actually been argued in court. Copyright troll picks target, finds absolutely nothing infringing on the computer, and rather than admit that they accused the wrong person they claim that the lack of incriminating evidence simply means that the accused hid it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:02am

    Re: Re: Steganography - an overlooked concept

    The words steganography and stegosaurus do actually contain the same prefix. Stego/stegano means covered or roofed. The hidden writing of steganography is covered/hidden and the stegosaurus' back is covered/roofed with bony plates.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:06am

    NEWS ALERT!

    Terrorists are creating the Matrix. Time to sue them for copyright infringement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:08am

    See what happens when you spread FUD. Now people think that terrorists can read the encrypted text and do the decrypting in their head.

    No wonder our anti-terrorism task forces fail so hard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:31am

    on the other hand . . .

    ny times continues to give sterling testimony for the dissolution of the newspaper business.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:40am

    Lines on a screen...

    I guess it's time for me to buy a giant sticker for my laptop:

    I AM A HACKER, NOT A TERRORIST

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:44am

    The New York Times is a reliable source on Wikipedia, therefore, Wikipedia isn't reliable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:45am

    Re: Re:

    There were people decades before that who knew invading Vietnam wasn't going to do anything to protect America.

    Nu-uh! You take that back! We fought them over there so that we wouldn't have to fight them over here! If we hadn't gone over there and whipped them we'd all be wearing red stars and speaking Vietnamese right now. How would you like that?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 11:56am

    Re: Re: Re:

    You drank all the kool aid, didn't you? You do realize we lost over there, and there are very few red stars here and only emigrants speaking Vietnamese?

    That whole domino effect...a bunch of malarkey.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    Groaker (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 12:08pm

    The NY Times was once a reliable paper. But has now developed a significant history of creating news. Just one murderous example was the stories made up about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. How many people died as a result of those canards?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 12:14pm

    Re: Lines on a screen...

    That's exactly what a terrorist would do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    Nastybutler77 (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 12:48pm

    “It was bizarre — he was looking at a bunch of lines, like lines of code. There was no image, no Internet,”

    Wouldn't surprise me if he had a Matrix screensaver and this idiot associated the green falling characters with encrypted lines of code.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 1:24pm

    Re:

    It was probably just a bluescreen error.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Ed, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 1:54pm

    Expert witness

    "When the laptop powered on, she saw a line of gibberish across the screen"

    You mean Arabic script?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. identicon
    cpt kangarooski, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 2:00pm

    Re: Re:

    It was probably just running through POST.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36. identicon
    Henrik, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 2:43pm

    Question

    Question: My encrypted Android Lollipop device doesn't show any signs of data when I connect it to my Windows computer. As soon as I type in my phone code, the data appears in Windows explorer.

    "But... that's not how encryption works. If they're using encrypted emails, the emails don't disappear."

    I'm no expert but either I'm missing something or the author. Can somebody explain?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37. icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 2:52pm

    Re:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38. icon
    daengh (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 3:10pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    whoosh!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 3:11pm

    Re: Expert witness

    Dang UEFI. No one recognizes the old power on self test anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40. identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 3:18pm

    Re: Steganography - an overlooked concept

    Well, it is designed to pass without being noticed...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 3:26pm

    Re: Question

    You're talking about two different things. The author is talking about sending encrypted emails. Encrypted emails are perfectly visible -- they're just text like any other email -- they just look like a random stream of characters.

    You're talking about encrypting your filesystem, not the data you're sending out. Windows isn't showing data there because it can't recognize the data it's seeing (because it's encrypted). It can't even tell where files start or stop, etc. and figures it's just malformed data storage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42. icon
    nasch (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 3:29pm

    Re:

    I found it funny that this person was mystified by the sight of a computer doing something other than "the internet".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43. identicon
    JBDragon, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 4:25pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    We didn't win or lose. We are in fact still in a state of war with North Korea. The war is not over, it's been basically paused for the most part all these years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 4:45pm

    Re: Re:

    This is the next step in human superstition over the unknown. At first it seems like magic. Then it seems highly technical. To the people who don't use or understand all the things that can be done with computers, anything on a computer that they've not seen before could be "encryption," "hacking," or "cyber-terrorism." In real life, the person could be playing an old school text-based RPG on a command line interface.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45. icon
    HiGravity (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 5:22pm

    Just sayin...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  46. icon
    G Thompson (profile), Mar 21st, 2016 @ 8:06pm

    It6 seems the NY Times has been taken over by ERRORISTS!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  47. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 9:32pm

    This is why news corporations like FOX news are not allowed to operate in Canada. If you are not going to report the truth and instead make stuff up you are not welcome here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  48. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2016 @ 10:47pm

    FBI and FOIA

    The FBI can't find responsive documents to FOIA requests. That means they must have destroyed them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  49. icon
    Laughing at Stasiland (profile), Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 1:11am

    News?

    The NY Times: why pay to read US government propaganda?
    Few others do - stenography posing as journalism has a limited future.

    Fox News: an oxymoron

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  50. icon
    Kode (profile), Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 1:27am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Not sure where you think Vietnam is, but North Korea is over 2000 miles away from it

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 6:40am

    Re: FOX news are not allowed to operate in Canada

    FOX news ARE allowed to operate in Canada, the Sun newspapers are part of Murdoch's empire and operate freely in all the major cities.

    Fox news doesn't operate in Canada because they don't want to. The requirement that they can't just make stuff up is what has dissuaded them from operations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52. icon
    nasch (profile), Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 6:42am

    Re:

    This is why news corporations like FOX news are not allowed to operate in Canada. If you are not going to report the truth and instead make stuff up you are not welcome here.

    That is not correct.

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/foxcanada.asp

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53. icon
    Monday (profile), Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 11:04am

    Gibberish or Script or something tangible?

    "... [he] was looking at a bunch of lines, like lines of code. There was no image, no Internet,” she said. Her description matches the look of certain encryption software, which ISIS claims to have used during the Paris attacks.


    FARSI?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  54. identicon
    Vader, Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 12:40pm

    "OH MY! "A bunch of lines, like lines of code"?!?!?! Must be encryption! Or, you know, Linux. Or some other system that doesn't start with a graphical user interface."

    Or, you know, maybe Arabic script ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  55. icon
    madasahatter (profile), Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 2:23pm

    Re:

    Or the correct nickname for the NY Times: "The Grey Whore".

    With burner phones, encryption is less critical because it is difficult to trace the phone to specific person. By regularly buying and ditching burner phones and careful sharing of the numbers it is very difficult to tie all the less ends together.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  56. identicon
    Johnny Cumalaitlee, Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 2:27pm

    Frogs VS shotguns

    Crazy shit man. Today's news said the Terrorists were extremely well organized and highly co-ordinated, because the attacks took place in different locations at the same time.

    Um, like, ya mean they all wore wrist watches....

    Wow, super co-ordinated and massively organized Terrorists!!!!! How will we ever defeat such a super villain bad-guy gang??

    I think this is just revenge on the Frenchies for not playing ball with Bush in Afghanistan. Remember American Fries?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  57. identicon
    anon35, Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 2:40pm

    Re: Question

    Henrik,

    The author is talking about encrypted communications. The data on your android is encrypted, and therefore unreadable. But if you mailed your android with its encrypted data to another person, an interceptor may not be able to read what's on the device, but they can read the to and from labels on the envelope the device was mailed in. It's analogous to sending encrypted files over the internet. An interceptor can still read the to and from headers, but they can't read the file.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  58. identicon
    Socrates, Mar 22nd, 2016 @ 3:58pm

    Re: Frogs VS shotguns

    There is an Afghan proverb: "You may have the watches, but we have the time". They fight us as long as we occupy their homeland, and not as an exaggeration; as in millennia or forever!

    When people we try to kill fight us at home, and those might have used actual wrist watches, that makes the irony complete!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  59. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 23rd, 2016 @ 1:22pm

    At some point people are going to clue into the overarching propaganda meme,

    which seems to be that technically sophisticated people are dangerous, and that legislation must be used to strip them of their rights. This basic theme is in most major television shows, oozes from conglomerate journalistic outlets, and seems to be a core part of American culture at this point.

    So either you code for a fortune 500, or you are a member of an undesirable social class. Your code is degenerate art. Your speech, unamerican. Your life subhuman. You are a "hacker". "one of THEM".

    They are doing this to ghetto-ize the Internet in favor of channelized box network services. There is no reason to channelize, but to isolate transit for one set of communications from another. It doesn't matter what you call it: zero rating, teredo, or advanced edge hosting. The purpose of it is to elevate the speech of the few over the speech of the many.

    So Congress puppets a popular meme. Much like the judges tried at Nuremberg puppeted a popular meme. The reason they get away with it is because industrious young men think that work solves this problem. But it isn't about the work, or the law, or money. These fucks have a problem with YOU.

    The sooner we get that, the sooner the Internet will have a second revolution. We need to invert the matrix. Wrap the tyranny of psycho-narcissistic-perpetualism in a cyst of code. Create systems that make these tyrannies apparent for what they are, so that when our krystal nacht comes, we may be armed to defend ourselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  60. icon
    Monday (profile), Mar 23rd, 2016 @ 2:35pm

    Re: At some point people are going to clue into the overarching propaganda meme,

    BRILLIANT! Well written.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  61. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 25th, 2016 @ 12:51pm

    Re: Re: Re: You are under arrest

    Hey. He had it coming: He was in the room during our optimistic business meeting. Smug over there thinking nobody noticed him.

    Now the legal system judges me, saying "tusk, tusk". They should not just switch U for I all the time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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