April 12, 2016

The Crypto Wars Are Not about Terrorism, They're about Power

Andrea O'Sullivan

Feature Writer
Summary

The FBI may have been able to unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s work-related iPhone without conscripting Apple as an unwilling hacker, but that has not slowed down the government’s broader war on encrypted technologies one bit.

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The FBI may have been able to unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s work-related iPhone without conscripting Apple as an unwilling hacker, but that has not slowed down the government’s broader war on encrypted technologies one bit. It didn’t take long for another tragic terrorist attack, this one in Belgium, to provide fresh rhetorical ammunition to the stubborn officials in a quixotic battle against mathematical techniques that keep up safe online.

As is typical these days, early reports that the Brussels attackers used encrypted technologies tended to be both alarmist and inaccurate. But the extent to which terrorists employ secure technologies (or not) is irrelevant: governments will seize upon whatever emotional excuse that they can in a crusade to augment their authority. 

In the wake of the Brussels attack, we saw the same "encryption panic cycle" that was first typified after terrorist attacks in Paris last year and later with the San Bernardino investigation. In both instances, parties who have always opposed strong security techniques quickly speculated that encryption was to blame long before facts were established, ensuring the conversation was framed in a beneficial way for their policy goals.

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