Ban Encryption? It's an Impossible Idea Whose Time Will Never Come

Of course government officials want to ban privacy-oriented technologies. They were created to thwart the grasping creatures.


If truth is the first casualty of war, the first casualty of a terrorist attack is people's right to be left the hell alone. Even before the terrorist outrage in Paris, the country of France already had a fully developed security state, with a wide-ranging surveillance law passed earlier this year, following on last year's crackdown on speech and travel. Chances are the shiny new measures in those bills hadn't even been implemented when the government last week awarded itself yet more eavesdropping, detention, and censorship powers.

But France is hardly alone: the U.S. infamously adopted the Patriot Act post-9/11, and Europe has rushed to follow after the attacks of the past few years, loosening already limp restrictions on officials spying on the people paying their salaries.

It's apparently not enough, though. Unwilling to let a good crisis go to waste, government officials have played on public fears to suggest bogus links between the Paris attacks and privacy-protecting technology like encryption and bitcoin. It's all in an effort to deny the benefits of those technology to people who don't want to live under constant state scrutiny.

The one saving grace is that these technologies were developed in the expectation that governments would pull exactly such stunts, and are well positioned to resist government controls.

It's worth noting here that terrorists certainly could use tools such as encryption apps and anonymous digital currency, just as they can use cars, weapons, telephones, cash, and everything else that human beings find useful in their everyday lives. To rid the world of goods and services useful to the few terrorists in our midst would be to leave everybody shivering naked and impoverished in the cold. And, in fact, ISIS and other terrorist groups use services like Twitter and Telegram to reach mass audiences, just as many people do. Shutting down those accounts just causes new ones to pop up; you'd have to kill the services entirely to keep terrorists out. 

Which is probably A-OK to officials. But that wouldn't actually cut terrorists off from one another. As early as 2007, "al-Qaeda's Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) released their own encryption software: Asrar al-Mujahedeen," notes a paper from the UK think tank Demos. That project has been updated and built upon since. No matter how successful FBI Director James B. Comey is in his efforts to arm-twist Apple and Google into weakening the privacy protections in their products, developers actively servicing the terrorist cause are unlikely to follow their lead.

What's amazing, though, is that—while we don't yet know all the details—it appears that the Paris attackers not only didn't use the commercial encryption products that make security-state apparatchiks so sad, they didn't use their home-grown tools either. They apparently communicated openly, with little effort at secrecy. The Paris apartment targeted for last Wednesday's raid was identified from data extracted from an attacker's cell phone after the fact.

In fact, intelligence officials aren't suffering a dearth of information about terrorists—they're gagging while drinking from a firehose of the stuff. Just as Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was already on a watchlist well ahead of his crime, so perpetrators of the Paris attacks and many others were already known to authorities—who were overwhelmed by the demands of monitoring so many suspects.

Likewise, there's little if any evidence that bitcoin funded the Paris attacks. Forget electronic money—proceeds from crime, social welfare payments, and defaulted consumer loans are among the major sources of funds for terrorist acts, according to a report by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF). But governments aren't looking for a spur to toughen efforts against bank robbery and welfare fraud—they want an excuse to track everybody's spending habits.

So European Union officials met last Friday in Brussels to emulate James Comey by exploiting the fears of the moment to hammer at cash and bitcoin—tools that had nothing to do with the massacre in Paris, but allow people far and wide to go about their lives with a modicum of privacy.

But statements issued at the end of the meeting were notably sparse on just how to do that, and for good reason. Bitcoin's creators were well aware that their efforts wouldn't be popular among regulators and legislators, precisely because they were potentially empowering people to bypass scrutiny, capital controls, and taxes (exactly that is happening in Argentina and elsewhere). The digital currency's network was designed to be decentralized and as anonymous as possible to make it resistant to control.

Bitcoin shares this feature with the better developed and far better established world of encryption. The tone was probably set when Phil Zimmermann specifically designed PGP as a privacy tool for political activists to protect their communications and ensured its distribution in the face of U.S. government opposition.

Zimmermann is now involved with Silent Circle, a commercial secure communications company based in Switzerland to put it beyond easy reach of the world's snoopier regimes. That model of choosing a friendly jurisdiction is followed by services such as ProtonMail and Tutanota. Other operations, such as Open Whisper Systems, make their products open source so that the code can be monitored for incursions by intelligence agencies.

The result leaves presidential candidate Hillary Clinton complaining "we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary" while the FBI's Comey frets that his efforts to intercept private communications increasingly "are ineffective."

That's not likely to change. The guerrilla war between advocates of privacy-protecting technology and snoopy government officials began many years ago. The sight of blustering politicians' steadfast determination to erode civil liberties in every nook and corner of society that they can reach is unlikely to convince the public at large to surrender its digital money and encrypted communications.

Especially when the supposed dangers of privacy-aiding technologies that officials raise are such obvious crap.

NEXT: Want to Save College Campuses from the Safe Spacers? Try Free-Ranging Your Kids.

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  1. If truth is the first casualty of war, the first casualty of a terrorist attack is people’s right to be left the hell alone.

    Forgive the pedantry, but I think people actually want to be let alone rather than left alone. In other words they don’t care to be interfered with. It would be a hell of a note if one had to be completely alone to achieve that.

    1. I was raised (in the New York area) with “left alone” as the common phrase. I suspect this is a matter of regional usage.

      1. Perhaps, but I grew up in the south and it was always the common phrase here as well. I think television has had much to do with making American English more uniform as anything.

    2. “people actually want to be let alone”

      Maybe so but they don’t want to let other people alone and that impulse is stronger.

    3. You don’t seem to understand, this is a population that thinks we can allow government to take from you and give to us without also allowing government to take from us and give to you. We think we can allow government to take your rights without also allowing government to take our rights. In the same vein, we believe we can allow government to dig without constraint into your business while at the same time preventing it from digging into our business at all.

      1. based in the principle that some pigs are just more equal than other pigs. Funny thing, though, it most often depends upon WHICH pigs one queries as to who is more equal than whom.

        True enough, your words are…. surveillance for thee but not for me. Of, yet another way,

        Not In My Backyard….. but yours? I’m fine with that.

      2. Prohibitionist Howell already covered this ground for us in 1908: You don’t consider such laws an invasion of the home, do you, or a violation of its immunities? I imagine,” he went on, “that the difference between your civilization and ours is only one of degree, after all, and that America and Altruria are really one at heart.”

  2. The article does hit on an important point namely how completely useless these efforts are. Encryption algorithms are published in detail. Home rolling an encryption app that stays off app stores is nearly as easy as copy, paste, done. It isn’t possible to clamp down on terrorists. They simply want a window into everyone else’s world no doubt so when that pesky vote comes up in some legislature they have just enough leverage to twist a couple arms the “right” way.

    1. I’d wager government funding for quantum computer cryptanalysis development is not hard to come by. There certainly is enough of it going around…

  3. Government doesn’t come up with these policies as a result of a terrorist attack. No. They write these policies because liberty gets in the way of their power, and use terrorist attacks as an excuse to implement them.

    1. ^^This. They already have more info than they can process, but they’d like to record everything, so when they focus on victimizing you, they can just go back and fish through your history. Guaranteed you broke some law somewhere. Or sent a text to a previous girlfriend, or owe money to someone, or something. Information is leverage untapped, they want control of it all.

      1. And I think they are smart enough to know that there is no way to win the war on terror. They are just riding this train as long as they can to grab more power. Every incident is an opportunity to tell people if they had just a bit more power that they could keep us safe.

      2. ^^This. They already have more info than they can process

        You’re thinking “terrorism”. The IRS and law enforcement like to have that data around for other purposes, and with upwards of a million people. And they simply look at it when they want to target you for other reasons.

        1. Someday, the average person is going to want to have a spambot generating terabytes of false information via all their accounts.

          If everybody has a spambot emailing out keywords like “woodchipper” and “nuke LA” and “Allahu Akbar” and “bomb plot” (amongst thousands of other scary red flag terms), what good will the NSA’s snooping do? After all, the average person would not care to keep the terabytes of data, but the NSA DOES need to keep it, so they’ll blow up their budget trying to buy storage.

          At some point they’ll have to give up.

          1. About a decade ago, there were browser extensions that did exactly this for exactly the reason you suggest. You may notice that people aren’t using them and they have disappeared from the stores.

            1. Unpersons? like Emmanuel Goldstein and Edward Snowden?

          2. Either that or add another pretext for kicking in doors and shooting dogs, children, women, kids and unarmed heads of household. Newspapers will continue to report that the prosecutor’s office, police union and internal affairs reviewed the resulting edited video, found drugs in an ashtray, and determined the action was regrettable but justified–expressing hope that it will at least serve as a warning to cause other miscreants to think twice before committing a like misdeed.

      3. I have wondered about information gathering with regard to the ACA…does increased government involvement in our healthcare give the increased access to our medical records?

        1. Of course. On of the databases is called the Federal Data Services Hub; others are being created.

          The “financial protections” of the federal government also involve the creation of a detailed financial database on US citizens.

        2. you bet.. and the dweebs that run ACA and all the computer stuff that goes with it are working hard and fast (fast and furious?) to add all manner of new categories to that ACA database with all our “medical” records.. and a whole bunch of other stuff. Those databases ar huge targets for hacking, putting all our information out there. One VERY nasty example was attempts to force medical folks to inquire about gun ownership of their patients and families.. asking kids if Daddy has any guns in the house (to which I’d train my kids to anwer something like “yeah, he sure does, we had to build a great big warehouse to keep them all… and all his friends come over to play with them”, knowing that when the coppers DO come round they’ll scratch their heads as to where the “great big warehouse” fits on a postage stamp sized lot….. and maybe realise they’ve been had). They are far worse than King George’s spies ever were. And far more ubiquitous.

    2. You nailed it.

      As with gun control efforts, the bills/regulations/policies are already written and waiting in the wings for the next “crisis as opportunity.”

      It’s all about sacrificing people’s lives and liberty to advance the policy of sacrificing people’s lives and liberty.

    3. Or engineer terrorist attacks as an excuse…

  4. If electronic surveillance ever became effective and our current simple encryption methods became breakable, people would simply switch to steganography and electronic dead drops: http://tinyurl.com/oblb7b4 Besides, you can download strong encryption in JavaScript today, which means it runs everywhere; it doesn’t even have to be installed.

    There simply is no way in which outlawing strong encryption is ever going to be effective against any serious opponents. All it does is make the average citizen’s life more accessible to government snooping.

  5. I’m not the first to point this out, but in the Paris terrorist attack:

    -Not Syrian
    -Not refugees
    -No encryption

    And our government is focusing on:


    1. You can add a few things:


      – Yes, they were Muslim extremists
      – Had illegal, banned guns and explosives

      Gov’t is focusing on:

      – “domestic terrorists,” aka white, Christian, racist rednecks, aka Tea Partiers
      – legal owners of guns and legally-owned guns

      1. What difference is there, aside from choice of Prophet, between Tea Party platform advocates of Christian America and Islamic State advocates of a resurgent Ottoman Levant? Headgear choices affecting redness of necks are not the same, but commitment to altruism, mystical revelation and the initiation of deadly force do not differ by much in those two collectives.

  6. Government never has enough, be it money, influence, raw power,unquestioned authority and of the ability to “screw the pooch” beyond redemption.

    1. “of” should read “or”. Yes, I’m a poor typist.

  7. Who have we always been at war with? I forget.

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  10. Say it once and I’ll say it again. Fuck those control freaks, anything that scares and confuses the state is good in my book and I hope more is done in that vein. The state is the only real Satan that exists in the modern world.

  11. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.buzznews99.com

  12. [Hillary Clinton complaining “we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary”]

    I don’t get it. Does she mean that Washington DC is not the enemy?

  13. The collapse of kleptocracies that incorporated the income tax formulated in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a recurring theme in the writings of Neil Stephenson. In Cryptonomicon, looter governments complicate efforts to bring about crypto-currency to replace parasitised Asian and American currencies. The Diamond Age is more explicit in how crypto makes such looter kleptocracies inviable, and Snow Crash develops a take on what sort of more libertarian enclaves might evolve to downsize and diversify governmental entities–each still a monopoly on restraint within its smaller area. As Ed Snowden kinda suggested: Good crypto will get you through times of no legal tender better than legal tender will get you through times of no crypto.

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