After Paris Attacks, Law Enforcement Officials Renew Push For Access to Encrypted Communications : All Tech Considered Security officials say the Paris attacks are an example why law enforcement needs to access encrypted data. Privacy advocates and the tech industry say such "back doors" are not the best solution.
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After Paris Attacks, Encrypted Communication Is Back In Spotlight

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After Paris Attacks, Encrypted Communication Is Back In Spotlight

After Paris Attacks, Encrypted Communication Is Back In Spotlight

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/456219061/456276451" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The attacks in Paris are recharging the debate about privacy and security. One question is, how easily should the government be able to access electronic communications? We're going to explore that today in All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: New York Police commissioner Bill Bratton is one of many officials who warn that new technologies may allow terrorists to go dark and escape government surveillance. I spoke to him today as he was in his car on the way to a press conference.

BILL BRATTON: Good afternoon. Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Begin by just briefly explaining what you mean by the phrase going dark.

BRATTON: It refers to the fact that many of the smart phone devices - the manufacturers that make those devices have now consciously designed those phones so they cannot be accessed by anybody. In other words, they've been encrypted so that even if we, in law enforcement, had court orders allowing us to search the phone, if you will, or the device, we would not be able to decipher the encrypted material on the phone.

Additionally, there are many apps that are now available that similarly encrypt messages. And so from a law enforcement perspective, we describe this experience of going dark, that we no longer can penetrate the darkness to conduct our investigations. It's a very significant negative factor in our ability to detect and disrupt terrorist-related activity.

SHAPIRO: And are you aware of any specific intelligence that the people who plotted or carried out the attacks in Paris used encryption technology?

BRATTON: We are waiting for the investigations by the French authorities to go forward to determine what devices these individuals may have been using for communication. Were they, in fact, encrypted types of devices? I think the French have indicated that they had no prior awareness of these attacks, reinforcing the concern that these operations may have been assisted by use of this encrypted technology.

We'll know more as the investigation goes forward. Right now it's speculative on my part, certainly. But for something of this magnitude to have gone undetected - the French have excellent intelligence services - it would be very unusual and also, needless to say now, very troubling in light of the horrific damage that was caused in Paris.

SHAPIRO: There's a piece in Forbes today that argues whatever governments attempt to do, whatever technology they blame, terrorists and criminals will find new ways to protect their communications from snoops. Do you agree with that? And if so, are you just playing whack-a-mole with new technologies, or are you asking for some specific authority that will solve this problem?

BRATTON: The world we're living today - it's evolving faster than any of us can fully appreciate. So that is correct in some sense that, from beginning of time, in the law enforcement world, we're continually trying to stay ahead of the criminal mind. And in this new period of time - the 21st century - we're finding ourselves having more difficulty staying ahead of the curve because of the rapidly advancing technology. So whether it's in cybercrime, identity theft issues, terrorism, we are really, I would say, struggling to stay ahead. As fast as you and I are talking, there's new technologies coming out that we have no idea of their capabilities.

SHAPIRO: And so what specific legal authorities are you seeking to solve that problem?

BRATTON: We are not seeking specific legal authorities at this juncture. I'm certainly not proposing a specific remedy. We're still trying to get our arms around the problem, identify for the American public that it is a problem and one that we're looking at very closely. And we'll seek to identify legislative tools that would assist us to fulfill our obligations to try to protect the American public from traditional crime and terrorism. But increasingly, we are finding ourselves without the tools to do that.

SHAPIRO: That's New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton. Commissioner Bratton, thank you for joining us.

BRATTON: Thank you - pleasure being with you.

SHAPIRO: And now we're joined by NPR's Steve Henn in Silicon Valley. He's been speaking with privacy advocates and executives at many of the tech companies that make the products and apps that Commissioner Bratton is worried about. Hey, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Well, how do privacy advocates respond to the concerns that we just heard Commissioner Bratton express?

HENN: So, Ari, the first thing that I think it's important to say is that everyone we've been talking to was horrified by what happened in Paris. But the privacy advocates we've been talking to said they thought it was premature to make the case that strong encryption played a role in making these attacks possible. They say at this point, we really don't know enough about how the perpetrators communicated, to be sure.

And they also make the case that, in fact, we're living in what they call a golden age of surveillance. They say it's never been easier for law enforcement to use the way we communicate to track what we say and what we do. And so they're really already pushing back against this notion that, you know, encryption technologies have allowed terrorist networks to go dark.

SHAPIRO: Well, Steve, explain a little bit more about this encryption that so concerns law enforcement. Are we talking about high-level hacker stuff or just pretty standard stuff in any communications technology?

HENN: Well, right now this kind of technology is built into many of the kinds of tools that we use all the time. End to end encryption is baked into iMessage. It's used by WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook and used by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. And that basically is when a message is scrambled on my device and it is sent directly to your device. And it's only at that point in your device that it can be decrypted and understood. And that leaves law enforcement unable to read messages after the fact or during an investigation, and that's really what they've been pushing back against.

You know, Ari, we heard Commissioner Bratton say that he wasn't asking for anything in particular. But some in the intelligence community here in the United States and in the intelligence community and law enforcement in Europe have been asking tech companies to consider building back doors into these services for exactly these kinds of emergencies.

SHAPIRO: What are you hearing from tech companies that are sort of caught in the middle of this tug of war?

HENN: Well, they have a couple problems with this request for a back door. They say if they are forced to create a master key that opens a back door into their networks, all of their customers' communications become more vulnerable and not just to law enforcement. They say that kind of back door is going to be a target for national security agencies from every country in the world. It will be a target for sophisticated hackers. And they say if they're forced to build it, it will be impossible to keep it safe.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you a question I put to Commissioner Bratton, which is, is this just a game of whack-a-mole where ever-evolving technologies will constantly give people who want to evade eavesdropping a way to do it?

HENN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think Commissioner Bratton was right there. And the other thing that's important to note is that really sophisticated, powerful encryption is out there in the public right now. So if these big tech companies are forced by law or convinced by national security agencies to create a back door, there is nothing stopping a kid in a garage from building an app that could keep these messages secret. And that's probably what would happen.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Steve Henn in Silicon Valley. Thanks, Steve.

HENN: Thank you.

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