Paris and Fear

Last weekend something terrible happened in Paris, France. Terrorists killed dozens of people in the nation’s deadliest attack since World War II. As usual, the guns had barely stopped firing before schemers began looking for ways to exploit this tragedy for their own ends. The two most worrisome things I am seeing are:

  1. Security officials using the attack as an argument for their anti-privacy/pro state surveillance campaign. They are aiming specifically at encryption.
  2. Politicians are exploiting paranoia and fear to turn their back on tens of thousands of refugees from the Syrian conflict.

The speed and callousness with which both groups use the death and suffering of others to advance their own ends should tell you something about their motives. This is not a new thing, it happens all the time. A good rule of thumb when tragedies like this happen is to ignore commentators. Even now, facts are coming to light that disarm many of their arguments. It seems the terrorists in Paris used unencrypted SMS to communicate.

Encryption is cast by security officials as the refuge for terrorists and enemy states. The truth is that encryption secures communication for many reasons. Encryption prevents interception of financial transactions, private transport of personal data, secure communication, business communication, etc. Encryption makes the pipes of our economy secure against state and criminal interference. What these security officials demand is a back door into these encryption protocols. From a certain perspective this seems fair, legal warrants surely justify access to encrypted data (never mind the fact that the NSA has repeatedly proven themselves incapable of actually waiting on warrants). However, there is no such thing as a law enforcement only back door. A back door for one group is actually a back door for everyone. What security officials say they want is not actually possible. There is no such thing as completely secure communication whose back door is only accessible to good guys.

Setting aside the impossibility of secure pseudo encryption, if officials and politicians succeeded in forcing large companies into compromising the security of their customers there will be alternatives that they cannot touch. Encryption software can be developed anywhere, by anybody, even terrorists themselves. Passing regulation that make law abiding companies compromise encryption does not mean that encryption will not be used. It only means that companies that respect the law will look for loopholes and become less competitive globally, a bad thing for our economy. America has a large hold over the technology industry worldwide. Compromising the security of American made technology is one way to lose this advantage.

The biggest concern I have with security officials seeking broader powers is the fact that they are effectively unaccountable. I’ve written about this here, here, and here. The long term effect of the surveillance state is a chilling of free speech, compromising the democratic process, and erosion of checks and balances within our government as power is consolidated in the executive branch and its bureaucracies, and, ultimately, a loss of liberty. I am cautious about being accused of appealing to a slippery slope,1 but just imagine your least favorite presidential candidate, and any future president, having access to the type of information the NSA gathers and tell me you trust them to do what’s right.

I mentioned politicians turning their back on refugees in the name of security. This knee-jerk tactic plays into the hands of extremist groups who appeal to the west’s decadence, secularism, and lack of respect as justification for their own existence. It denies safety and shelter to men, women, and children who flee their homelands in fear. It adds to the shame we should feel for the humanitarian crisis of immigrants within our own borders.

Terrorists are called terrorists because with relatively little effort they strike fear into a populace. Acting on that fear by turning away from those who need our help is effectively handing victory to our enemies. France itself will continue welcoming refugees. What justification do we have for denying them? To those presidential candidates who would ask that a refugee prove themselves Christian before admittance I would simply suggest that they consider what ISIS does to those in their territory that cannot prove they are sufficiently “Muslim”.2 After all, that is what these refugees are fleeing from.

Fear and paranoia are used by schemers to give us false security in exchange for our freedom and dignity. Don’t let them.

  1. Citing the slippery slope fallacy has the effect of shutting down debate. Just because a potential consequence is one or two steps removed does not make it any less possible/probable. We arrive at unforeseen conclusions all the time, even if it takes a while. Some future outcomes are more or less likely, but they should not be dismissed out of hand. 

  2. I use quotes here, because allowing extremists to define a faith held by over a billion people is giving them power they clearly do not deserve. As a Mormon, it givens me pause when one of our bad eggs is found doing something they shouldn’t, they are always identified as Mormon in news reports. This is done for few other groups. We and Muslims have something in common here. Rare bad actors do not deserve the honor of defining the traits of their whole community in the public mind.