Encryption and Terrorism: The Secrecy Problem

Encryption technology is rapidly becoming a political football, and leaders like to link it to an alluring idea:¬† Wouldn’t it be nice if police had a door into every encryption scheme? Then they could root out the criminals and terrorists and put an end to their activities.

Can this work? Probably not. Commercial encryption is only a small piece of the counter-terrorism puzzle. The real problem is much more sinister, insidious and difficult to control. It’s called communication secrecy, and that, not encryption software, is the real dilemma.

Thinking About Secrecy

A little logic is needed, and we need to understand the basics. Before they go into battle, people have always done several things:

1. They plan in secret.
2. They prepare in secret.
3. They deploy in secret.
4. Then they attack.

Does anyone think that terrorists are unaware of these simple precautions? This is elementary operational security. After all, a terrorist attack depends on surprise, and surprise requires secrecy. Judging from the frequency of terror incidents (as many as one or two a day around the globe), law enforcement experts have a remarkably lame record when it comes to uncovering extremists’ illegal activities — the planning and preparation that precede attacks.

This is the unfortunate truth: Terrorists have access to encryption technology, but they don’t need it.

Secrecy isn’t Rocket Science

If you think terrorists find it difficult to hide their planning and messages, you’ll get an eye-opener when you read Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko (Cambridge, Ma.:¬†Candlewick Press, 2004).

Written for a middle-school audience, this handbook for “the budding cryptographer” includes codes and ciphers, invisible inks and concealment strategies — dozens of ways messages can be scrambled without relying on commercial encryption software.

If eighth-graders can conveniently maintain privacy, we have to assume that terrorists do the same.

(Another useful source is The Code Book by Simon Singh, New York: Doubleday, 1999.)

A Successful Counter-Terrorism Effort?

The current mass surveillance program misses the mark when it comes to stopping determined attackers. If you support the current policy of universal tracking, you’ve basically bought a bill of goods.

Surveillance is ineffective at uncovering plots and terrorists’ preparations, but it probably has some effect somewhere. What does it do? Mass surveillance likely drives enemies further underground, and, further, it fragments the counter-terrorism effort, maybe irreparably (if surveillance targets everyone, it’s effectively overwhelmed and is actually looking for no one).

In theory, it seems there’s only one way Big Brother could stop terror plots. On the signals intelligence end, agents would need a back door into every commercial and custom encryption software package, relentlessly track every possible suspect and then penetrate their private ciphers and codes. This penetration would require HUMINT — actual human intelligence gathered from spies who infiltrate terror networks or insiders who are persuaded to turn against their fellow terrorists.

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