Attacking encryption and social media won’t curtail extremism

New York Times Square was referenced in an alleged ISIS video (Creative Commons image)

New York’s Times Square was referenced in an alleged ISIS video (Creative Commons image)

By Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I’m writing this column on a train from Washington to New York. Both cities have been the subject of recent threats claiming to be from ISIS and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t just a bit on edge. I don’t know if the threats are credible or when they might try to attack. That is the world we live in, but living in fear is not new. I grew up at a time when everyone worried about a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. In elementary school I was taught to climb under a table in the event of an air raid siren, as if that would have protected me from a nuclear blast.

I’m pleased, but not completely relieved to know that the New York police department “will remain at a heightened state of vigilance and will continue to work with the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the entire intelligence community to keep the city of New York safe.” Both New York and Washington — along with Paris — were already at a “heightened state of vigilance,” which causes this civilian to wonder what more they can do.

Desire to curtail encryption

One thing that some officials want to do is to force or convince technology companies like Google, Apple and Facebook to remove end-to-end encryption from their products or give the government a “back door” to access encrypted communications as Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance called for in a recent speech. Even before the Paris bombings, FBI Director James Comey called upon tech companies to enable authorities to access encrypted data, though unlike Vance, he stopped short of calling for any legislation to make it a mandate. Security experts I’ve spoken with worry that any back door would defeat the purpose of encryption and be subject to abuse and hacking, assuming it is possible in the first place.

There have even been calls to crack down on Sony PlayStation’s private (unencrypted) chat functions based on a now discredited news story that the game console was linked to the attacks. Fact is, any tool that can be used to communicate could be used to plan attacks and we can’t lock down all communications devices.

While I understand law enforcement’s frustration around encryption, it is important to note that encryption has been around for decades and that there are plenty of products, including Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) — from all over the world — that can be used to encrypt communications. I recently learned about an encryption program called Mujahideen Secrets, which was reportedly created on behalf of Al Qaeda back in 2007.

I suppose it’s easier to use the built-in encryption supported by iPhones and Android phones and popular messaging programs like Facebook-owned What’s App, but careful and sophisticated criminals, including terrorists, have plenty of other options.

It’s also important to remember that there are plenty of reputable reasons to use encryption to avoid industrial espionage, to protect dissidents against oppressive governments and simply to provide the level of privacy many individuals want for their day-to-day communications.

And it’s also important to note that American products and services are used globally. Some of the harshest critics of the U.S. surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden were governments from around the world. Officials from several countries have publicly worried about the U.S. government having access to their citizens’ communications and data. American tech companies suffer when other countries lose trust in their ability to maintain privacy and security.

Social media

There have also been calls to crack-down on the reported use of social media by extremists to groom recruits and plan attacks. It’s hard to imagine why any criminal would plan an attack via social media but I can certainly understand why they would want to use it to recruit and radicalize potential supporters and comrades.

A few days after the Paris attack I attended a Combating Online Radicalization and Extremism workshop at the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) annual conference in Washington where experts pointed out that people who interact with extremists via social media are already highly vulnerable and on the path toward radicalization.

You don’t go online shopping for shoes and suddenly become a jihadist

“You don’t go online shopping for shoes and suddenly become a jihadist,” said panelist Erin Saltman of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Mia Bloom, a communications professor from Georgia State University, said that terrorists gradually turn disaffected youth into allies the way sexual predators groom their victims. She referred to the radicalization process as “multi- layered and non-linear.” All the panelists agreed that radicalization begins in people’s physical communities where extremists have plenty of access to vulnerable youth.

Facebook, in a statement, said that it works “aggressively to ensure that we do not have terrorists or terror groups using the site, and we also remove any content that praises or supports terrorism.” The company points to tools that “make it easy” for its 1.5 billion members to flag content that violates the company’s rules.

libertyAs my train approaches Penn Station, I’m hoping that New York authorities are doing everything possible to protect me while I’m in that wonderful city. But I want them to be smart, using tactics known to be effective and — while they’re at it — I want them and everyone else in authority to remember that it’s their job also to help protect our democracy and our civil liberties.

And while I’m in New York, I plan to enjoy the town and not let fear keep me from doing what I need to do. Maybe I’ll go down to the Battery so I can view the Statue of Liberty. It was a gift from France, which needs our support right now, and it bears a quote worth repeating as we also ponder the fate of the Syrians who are fleeing terror.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.