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CIA Director: It's the Media's Fault That Terrorists Are So Good at Encryption

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Uh oh. Has ISIS been reading for hot tips? Because intelligence leaders are blaming the press for encouraging ISIS and other terrorist organizations to “go dark.”

At a House Intelligence Committee hearing today on global threats, members of Congress spent ample time asking FBI Director James Comey what was up with the FBI and Apple. If I told you that a life-size Comey doll with a voice recording that rasped “I’m not an expert” playing on a loop sat in for the FBI director, I’d definitely be lying—Comey was there. But he may as well have sent the doll.


The oddest part came at the end, after everyone realized that Comey wasn’t actually going to say anything substantive. At that point, members of Congress asked CIA Director John Brenner and NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett about terrorists “going dark” by using encryption technology. “Going dark” has become an intelligence community slogan, a phrase to describe what happens when it has the legal means to search and intercept digital communications but can’t technically do it because of security protections.

“The ability of these terrorists to communicate with one another that makes it very difficult to uncover has been increasing. It’s very frustrating but very concerning,” Brennan said. “They follow the press, they follow these discussions.”


Ledgett poked his finger at the media even more explicitly. “We track when our foreign intelligence targets talk about the security of their communication,” he said. “And we see a growing number of them, because of what’s in the press about the value of encryption, moving towards that.”

The implication of these statements—that media reports are somehow optimized to help terrorists be better at evading law enforcement—is a dangerous one. Yes, of course terrorists read. But Brenner and Ledgett’s statements situate media support for strong encryption on the side of terrorism. Neither intelligence leader recognized how members of their own communities might also benefit from media reports about encryption. In fact, neither Brennan or Ledgett bothered to acknowledge that their own agencies rely on encryption as a crucial security measure.

Neither Brennan or Ledgett specified which reports were believed to be frequently dog-eared on ISIS squatters, but that doesn’t matter. Extremists are interested in privacy tools, and media reports on privacy tools. Saying that they read about which tools to use is just saying that any group with goals attempts to find information that will help achieve those goals. Implying that media reports are aiding and abetting the enemy—not to mention the notion that reports highlighting privacy protections are somehow devious—is just unfair and chilling.

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