Questions about how the terrorists behind Friday’s attacks in Paris managed to evade electronic surveillance have fueled worrisome speculation in Europe and in the U.S. from intelligence experts, lawmakers and the press — including the New York Times, which on Sunday quietly pulled from its website a story alleging the attackers used encrypted technology.
On Sunday, the Times published a story citing unidentified “European officials” who told the outlet the attackers coordinated their assault on the French capital via unspecified “encryption technology.”
“The attackers are believed to have communicated using encryption technology, according to European officials who had been briefed on the investigation but were not authorized to speak publicly,” the article, which has since been removed, stated.
“It was not clear whether the encryption was part of widely used communications tools, like WhatsApp, which the authorities have a hard time monitoring, or something more elaborate. Intelligence officials have been pressing for more leeway to counter the growing use of encryption.”
The Times later posted a second article citing an anonymous “European counterterrorism official” who was quoted saying authorities’ “working assumption is that these guys were very security aware,” but clarified officials “offered no evidence.”
“European officials said they believed the Paris attackers had used some kind of encrypted communication, but offered no evidence,” the article reads. “‘The working assumption is that these guys were very security aware, and they assumed they would be under some level of observation, and acted accordingly,’ said a senior European counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information.”
The Islamic State, or ISIS, the terror group that has seized control of parts of northern Syria and western Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack that claimed 129 lives.
The New York newspaper of record was far from the only source to allege or infer the attackers relied on encryption early on. Politico published a story Sunday quoting Belgium Interior Minister Jan Jambon naming PlayStation 4 as a difficult communication platform to “decrypt.” French authorities said they confiscated at least one of the video game consoles from one attacker’s belongings.
“’The most difficult communication between these terrorists is via PlayStation 4,’ the minister said, three days before the terrorist attacks in Paris. ‘It’s very, very difficult for our services — not only Belgian services but international services — to decrypt the communication that is done via PlayStation 4.'”
“It’s unclear if the suspects in the attacks used PlayStation as a means of communication,” the article continues. “But the sophistication of the attacks raises questions about the ability of law enforcement to detect plots as extremists use new and different forms of technology to elude investigators.”
Forbes posted a similar article Saturday explaining the PlayStation platform isn’t necessarily encrypting would-be terrorists communications, but rather makes it difficult for authorities to surveil certain in-game methods of communication, such as chats via headset in private game sessions or writing messages via in-game functions, like spelling words with dropped items or shooting walls.
“While it remains unclear whether the Paris ISIS terrorists employed PS4 to communicate, there are a few options, from sending messages through the PlayStation Network (PSN) online gaming service and voice-chatting to even communicating through a specific game,” the article reads.
Sony did not respond to a request for comment on what, if any, forms of encryption it implements over gamers’ communications, or if it has an infrastructure in place for monitoring the content of those communications and facilitating government surveillance requests.
“Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that the NSA and CIA actually embedded themselves in games like World of Warcraft to infiltrate virtual terrorist meet-ups,” the Forbes piece added.
Blaming Snowden for supposedly alerting extremists to the fact that they’re being surveiled emerged just as quickly, with former George W. Bush press secretary and current Fox News commentator Dana Perino tweeting “F Snowden. F him to you know where and back” Friday night.
Seemingly in reference to the forthcoming Oliver Stone film about Snowden starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Perino’s Fox News colleague Greg Gutfeld tweeted, “if the attack was aided through ‘whistleblowers’ leaking what the NSA cannot penetrate, will that be part of the movie?”
The topic of criminals and terrorists “going dark,” or using encrypted online communications platforms — which often times companies on the scale of Apple can’t unlock without a users’ password — has been popular on Capitol Hill in the last year.
Law enforcement and intelligence agency heads, including FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers, have repeatedly warned legislators they’re facing an increasing intelligence gap in the “dark space” — a direct result, they argue, of Internet service providers refusing to work with authorities on a “back door” for agencies to surveil encrypted communications.
Though the White House backed away from that position earlier this fall, Robert Litt, a lawyer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in an August email obtained by the Washington Post that the pro-encryption tide “could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”
Over the weekend former agency officials, including ex-NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden, agreed.
“We spent the last two-and-a-half years withdrawing from collection activities that even this president, President Obama…was comfortable with and we’ve pulled back,” Hayden told CBS. “I think the events in Paris are going to give a better balance now to the kinds of discussions we need to have.”
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said he suspects the Paris attacks will weigh heavily on the encryption fight ongoing.
“I think what we’re going to learn is that these guys are communicating via these encrypted apps, the commercial encryption, which is very difficult, if not impossible, for governments to break, and the producers of which don’t produce the keys necessary for law enforcement to read the encrypted messages,” Morell said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.
“We need to have a public debate about this,” he continued. “We have in a sense had a public debate — that debate was defined by Edward Snowden, and the concern about privacy. I think we’re now going to have another debate about that — it’s going to be defined by what happened in Paris.”
Clarification: This story was changed to reflect that Politico’s Sunday story inferred the use of encryption, not alleged.