The first time the world had a serious discourse on surveillance and encryption was after Edward Snowden and Wikileaks split out secrets of the US government’s spying.
The fallout from the revelations that the US government was keeping tabs not only on its own citizens but also on world leaders, more so allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel was unprecedented and in the wake of all the debating and accusations the US stopped mass surveillance on the scale it was carrying it out.
Back then there were serious concerns about the ability of the NSA to differentiate between a regular citizen going about his or her daily business and a threat to national security.
There were people who felt that although some of the measures that the NSA was taking were intrusive, they were necessary to preempt attacks against the US and its interests across the world. The NSA was widely condemned, nevertheless, leading to suspension and closure of some of the surveillance programs it was running.
The Friday 13th attacks in Paris which left 129 dead and over 350 injured have revived the surveillance and encryption, especially in the US. CBS on its show ‘Face the Nation’ hosted former CIA deputy director Michael Morell in the ongoing debate.
The former deputy director said, “I think we are going to learn that these guys are communicating via these encrypted apps.” He then mentioned that it was frustrating because the kind of commercial encryption these terrorists are using are made in the US but the companies that make them cannot themselves break the encryption.
These sentiments were echoed by NY Police Commissioner William Bratton who said that in the efforts of his department to fight terror he and his team find this kind of encryption where not even the manufacturing company can break them in.
If indeed it is found that the Paris attacks were coordinated through secure networks, specifically encrypted networks then the pressure to allow governments a way in in the encryption will grow. At moments like this, just like after 9/11, people are likely to be receptive of the suggestion that they should give up some privacy online for the greater good. People will choose security over privacy.
The debate on surveillance and encryption is therefore only starting. There will be responses from this cautioning against allowing government agencies a backdoor into encrypted networks.
Some like Joseph Hall from the Center for Democracy and Technology point out that there is no way as of today through which to discriminate the good guys from the and guys in as far as allowing some access to the encrypted systems.