Much discussion of encrypted online communications after the Paris terror attack has transpired, though no evidence existed that the ISIS operatives, who killed 130 people, employed such techniques–until now.
According to CNN, investigators say they have evidence that the terrorists did use encrypted applications to plan their deadly assault. Reports have previously claimed that apps, including WhatsApp and Telegram, have been found on their cell phones.
WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is a very popular messaging application which duplicates the look and feel of phone text messaging, without incurring the surcharges phone companies often charge for texting. WhatsApp began using end-to-end encryption in November 2014, in what was seen as the largest deployment of such technology to date.
Founder Jan Koum, who grew up in Soviet Ukraine, cited his distrust of government surveillance as the reason for encrypting WhatsApp communications. “Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state–the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech,” he told Wired, referring to the United Kingdom. “Our goal is to protect it. We have encryption between our client and our server. We don’t save any messages on our servers, we don’t store your chat history. They’re all on your phone.”
Among the recent clashes between WhatsApp and public officials was a two-day ban in Brazil that shut the service down for a hundred million users in Brazil, ostensibly as part of a criminal case against a large gang that uses the platform to plan and execute crimes. (Some observers speculated that the ire of Brazilian telecom companies over WhatsApp poaching their text-message business might also have been a factor.)
Telegram is an encrypted chat application that has been under pressure to purge Islamist extremists and ISIS supporters from its user base, after initially refusing to do so. At the time of the Paris attack, Telegram was being described as the “hot new thing among jihadists”; it was the platform ISIS used to claim responsibility for the downing of the Russian Metrojet airliner in Egypt.
Officials gave no details about specific evidence that the Paris terrorists used encrypted applications and admitted it may never be possible to recover all the messages the killers sent each other. The terror cell was careful enough to use other tradecraft, such as changing the SIM cards in their cell phones, but at least one of their phones included unencrypted incriminating communications, which officials said could be an “indication of sloppiness.”
Law enforcement officials have been complaining about their inability to penetrate encrypted networks to monitor the activity of terrorist suspects, which is exactly why many people who are not remotely connected with terrorism wish to secure their privacy by using such applications.
While many reports, such as a UK Express article, “ISIS Terrorists Planned Paris Attacks with WhatsApp and Other Ecrypted Apps,” definitively state the terrorists were using WhatsApp and Telegram, the CNN report actually only mentions that those two apps were found on the killers’ smartphones and that investigators have found evidence that encrypted communications were used; it has not definitively stated that either WhatsApp or Telegram were employed in plotting or executing the attack.