Despite no available evidence that terror suspects used encryption to plan the Paris attacks, U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers are seizing on the massacre to demand access to protected communications—in what critics warn is a blatant attempt to exploit fear in order to expand state surveillance.
Speaking at a cybersecurity conference in New York on Wednesday, FBI director James Comey argued that it is critical for government officials to have the power to read encrypted messages. Encryption has long been embraced by civil liberties advocates as a method for protecting internet and smartphone messages from spying and censorship—and ultimately safeguarding human rights.
"With lack of cooperation, we are left with 50-foot-high walls on either side," argued Comey. "We have to get to a place where we push information to each other at a pace that moves with the speed of the threat."
Comey is one voice in a crescendo that also includes U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "Silicon Valley has to look at its products because if you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children, to strike innocents—whether it's at a game in a stadium, in a small restaurant in Paris, take down an airliner—that's a big problem," the top Senate Intelligence Committee Democrat told MSNBC on Monday.
And on Monday, the embattled CIA director John Brennan criticized public "hand-wringing" over government surveillance, claiming that such concerns have made it more difficult for authorities to identify "murderous sociopaths" in ISIS. In making these statements, Brennan was directly referencing public outcry at revelations of mass government spying exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Now even New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—who was widely criticized for comparing Black Lives Matter protesters to "terrorists" earlier this year—is jumping into the fray, an indication that the push for greater access to encryption could also expand the power of controversial figures in policing.
"ISIS, taking advantage of the technology that the head of the FBI has been complaining about, I’ve been complaining about, going dark, the ability to go dark, I think you’re going to see that playing a significant factor in this event," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.
Bratton, however, appears to be wrong. As of Wednesday, reports indicated that those suspected of carrying out the Paris attacks used unencrypted communications.
Yet, as many have pointed out, numerous major media outlets are providing uncritical platform for such voices, parroting headlines such as this New York Times one which ran Monday: "Encrypted Messaging Apps Face New Scrutiny Over Possible Role in Paris Attacks."
In a tweet published on Thursday, Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald suggested that readers do a test: "when you see a print or TV story on Paris and encryption, look to see if CIA official claims are uncritically shown without dissent."
The calls for greater state spying power extend far beyond access to encrypted messages. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), introduced a bill on Tuesday to extend mass surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, in what the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cindy Cohn called "exploitation of this latest international tragedy" that is "sadly similar" to that seen in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Meanwhile, some media outlets are featuring voices openly calling for the total suspension of privacy rights and civil liberties while advocating that Muslim-Americans should be aggressively monitored and surveyed. As Fox News contributor Bo Dietl declared on Monday: "Let's stop worrying about people's rights."