Encryption Cleared

Paris attacks


Almost immediately after Islamic State terrorists struck Paris in November, killing 130, some American intelligence officials and surveillance supporters tried to lay blame on efforts to restrict the amount of private information the government could collect, and on the unwillingness of online companies to provide encryption "back doors" allowing government access.

CIA Director John Brennan said he hoped the massacres would be a "wake-up call" for European countries, blaming Edward Snowden's "unauthorized disclosures" for scaled-back snooping. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton fretted about terrorists "going dark," using encrypted digital communication to defeat government surveillance tools.

But the USA FREEDOM Act restricted only the gathering of phone metadata from American citizens on American soil. It would not have impacted the ability of U.S. intelligence officials to snoop on potential terrorists in Europe or the Middle East. And the law's restrictions didn't come into play until the end of November.

Furthermore, the investigation into how the terrorists planned their assaults revealed that the intelligence failures had little to do with technology or privacy protections. After the attacks, authorities found smartphones belonging to the terrorists. The phones were not encrypted. The men used online booking services and credit cards under their actual names.