CIA Director John Brennan told CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday that encryption is impeding investigations into ISIS activity.
The agency reportedly knew, for example, in the days before the terror attacks in Paris, that the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) was “trying to carry out something.” But it wasn’t sure of the specific nature of the attack.
“We knew the system was blinking red,” Brennan said. “We knew just in the days before that ISIL was trying to carry out something. But the individuals involved have been able to take advantage of the newly available means of communication that are — that are walled off, from law-enforcement officials.”
Brennan was referring to encrypted communications. Encryption is reportedly hampering efforts to gain insight into possible ISIS plots, allowing communications between operatives like the Paris attackers to slip through the cracks. Those attackers killed 130 people in November in coordinated, simultaneous attacks across the city.
And Brennan warned that ISIS is also targeting the US.
“That there is a lot that ISIL probably has underway that we don’t have obviously full insight into,” Brennan said.
He called the terrorists’ use of encryption “very sophisticated” and said that US intelligence officials have to work harder to identify and stop attacks before they happen. Intelligence agencies have reportedly had some success with this already.
“Believe me, intelligence security services have stopped numerous attacks — operatives — that have been moved from maybe the Iraq to Syria theatre into Europe,” Brennan said. “They have been stopped and interdicted and arrested and detained and debriefed because of very, very good intelligence.”
And though ISIS would like to attack the US, it’s far from inevitable that they will eventually succeed.
“I’m expecting them to try to put in place the operatives, the material or whatever else that they need to do or to incite people to carry out these attacks, clearly,” Brennan said. “So I believe that their attempts are inevitable. I don’t think their successes necessarily are.”
The Paris attacks opened up a debate about encrypted communication. The extent to which the Paris terrorists used encryption — and how, specifically, they used it — to plot the attacks remains murky. But officials have said that the attackers did use some encrypted apps to hide their activity.
Some experts say that giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies a back door into encrypted apps might open up privacy issues for consumers. If police can eavesdrop on encrypted communications, the argument goes, then criminals and repressive governments could find ways to eavesdrop on the people using these apps as well.
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