Melting pot: America, encryption, immigration and terrorism

Fearing The Immigrant Terrorist

‘Because the Internet is global and communication systems are global, the values we apply here are often times ones that folks who are trying to come into the country are also benefiting from because they’re using the same technologies’, stated Obama last Friday. The statement comes at a time when the US government, at odds with Silicon Valley, has been trying to find the “right balance” between national security and personal security.

Earlier this December, American citizen Rizwan Farooq and his wife Tashfeen Malik, who spent most of her life as a “Saudi girl“, went on a killing spree in San Bernardino, California, resulting in the deaths of 14 people. As the case continues to unravel, just as in the November Paris attack, encryption and immigration have become central to the shrill debate on terrorism in America. (To be fair, Paris is not America, but only responded as if it were.) The recent mass shooting also comes conveniently for conservative voters and politicians in the country who have long wanted stringent immigration rules in place to avoid entry of “high-risk” (Muslim) visa applicants. The recent GOP entertainment debate, for instance, was rife with inaccuracies about immigration – intended to stoke more fear in a country that now takes pride in being very ignorant. Rand Paul claimed all terrorist attacks since 9/11 were carried out by immigrants, though 80 per cent of them were U.S. citizens and 64 per cent were born on U.S. soil. Between all the muddling of facts, the underlying attitude seems to be that most GOP candidates don’t want Muslims entering America unless they are placed under constant scrutiny and that current American Muslims are an existential threat to real Americans.

Critics, on the other hand, have pointed out that violence by extreme right-wing Muslim perpetrators almost equals attacks by extreme right-wing white Americans. They have also emphasised that thwarted terror plots are usually the combination of undercover work, community involvement and the  tendency of extremists to incessantly ramble on about their violent plans on social media and Internet forums than mass surveillance of private communications or restricted immigration.

Where Technology Meets Terrorism

In times of manufactured fear, rationality is seldom the resort of any man. For Americans, “Muslim while Whatsapping” is a far greater danger than non-religious gun violence. As America enters a turbulent and often hilarious 58th presidential election, emotions are high with Donald Trump’s belligerent foghorn blaring unrivalled in this bog.

Last week, journalists claimed Malik, our lady terrorist, publicly expressed violent urges online, which the government missed before granting her a K1 fiancée visa. While the House Judiciary Committee is disappointed with the ease with which the terrorist acquired a visa, Obama later clarified that the messages in question were sent over private platforms. As far as law enforcement agencies monitoring online public activity is concerned, the president stated that this is a routine part of any visa review process. 

The old obsession with breaking end-to-end encryption and privileging the government with backdoor access, a double-edged sword, might be counter-productive. Obama’s statements on privacy have been diplomatic, too, but there is nothing in them to give online users, who aren’t mentally unhinged by radicalism, much confidence. However, it was refreshing to hear him admit the logistic impossibility of perusing through billions of private messages to catch terrorism plots. While it’s sweet Obama wants Silicon Valley to “help” it contain extremists on encrypted platforms, the US government has, on the side, doggedly pursued apps like Whatsapp, iMessage and Telegram to dismantle end-to-end encryption, which gives only users the ability to access personal data. Encrypted services like Tor also allow terrorists to communicate under-the-radar using what is fashionably called the “dark web” and unfashionably explained by experts as Internet that doesn’t show up in a Google search (not indexed).

Exceptional Considerations For Exceptional Reasons

In a scary display of soundness, Matthew Green, assistant professor at John Hopkins Information Security Institute, speaking to Scientific American, said, ‘Law enforcement is talking about easy encryption apps that you download from the app store. What we’ve learned from terrorists is that they will go to great lengths to encrypt and even hide their communications in code. They’re not completely dependent on these easy-use apps that people are talking about’. If Facebook relents and gives government access to Whatsapp, it’s quite certain terrorists will simply use another service’. Even the idea that encryption is some sort of impenetrable dungeon from another parallel universe is deceptive, as government agencies can access crucial metadata. Even with full access, there is no guarantee of thwarting attacks. Agencies can use the legal route to access information, which requires a warrant, which requires establishing probable cause, which is a pesky little civil rights issue law enforcement agencies want to bypass.

Earlier this year, Intercept reported that bulk surveillance and collection of data actually slows down anti-terrorism work. That fact is inconvenient for many anti-privacy proponents who, if they could, would blame Snowden for any toilet malfunction. When companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Telegram and Twitter have built their messaging services on the mantle of encryption, it’s only natural that all of Silicon Valley would raise its eyebrow at the government trying to introduce laws to strong-arm capitalism.  The best way to do that is invoke fear and accuse corporations of “putting rapists, murderers and mutilators on the street”. With the way the US government talks, you’d think there are groups of extremist butchers and cutthroats roaming a dystopic America if it weren’t for those snivelling, greedy, newfangled startup things. If all this isn’t already absurd in terms of technology and lawmakers’ poor understanding of it, more people in America are likely to die of literally anything than terrorism. Yet, over the past 15 years, America’s domestic and international policies have been dramatically altered in response to something that isn’t even its biggest threat.

With votebank issues like immigration, refugees, terrorism and encryption taking precedence in the upcoming U.S. presidential race, we’ll likely hear more ludicrous opinions based on misinformation and motivated by gross exaggeration to isolated events to fill the news. It’s all fun and games until the American government starts forming policies in response to this farce, a move that will not only be detrimental to the nature of 21st century digital communications, but civil rights of citizens (and businesses) around the world.

As Tim Cook, Apple CEO, said in an interview for 60 minutes: ‘Here’s the situation is on your smartphone today, on your iPhone, there’s likely health information, there’s financial information. There are intimate conversations with your family, or your co-workers. There’s probably business secrets and you should have the ability to protect it. And the only way we know how to do that, is to encrypt it. Why is that? It’s because if there’s a way to get in, then somebody will find the way in. There have been people that suggest that we should have a back door. But the reality is if you put a back door in, that back door’s for everybody, for good guys and bad guys’.

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