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Encryption seems to have played little to no part in the Paris attacks

terrorists burner phones paris attack
Josep Suria/123rf
It was a very concerted effort that led to the Paris terrorist attacks last November. That much we already knew. What we didn’t know, up until the release of a 55-page report compiled by the French anti-terrorism police for France’s Interior Ministry, was the extent to which the terrorists used burner phones in order to avoid detection, reports The New York Times.

According to the report, the terrorists used either new phones or phones that were taken from their victims in order to communicate with each other. And the terrorists discarded all of them, with one assailant activating a phone less than an hour before he carried out a suicide attack.

The investigation of the terrorists’ movements revealed the repeated use of burner phones, with dozen of such phones discovered unused. This is where things get interesting, however, as among all the burner phones, there wasn’t a single e-mail or online chat message found. In other words, the assailants seemed to have known such communication venues would be monitored by intelligence agencies, and this appeared to lead them to rely on regular cellular network calls instead of encryption.

This information seems to show how effective the use of burner phones still is. The report as a result has the potential to undermine the argument that encryption creates an environment for terrorists to freely communicate with each other, the same argument currently used by the FBI and other agencies.

There was an instance when a woman saw what she believed to be “a bunch of lines, like lines of code” from a terrorist’s computer, which would coincide with ISIS’ claim of encryption use during the Paris attacks. However, the woman saw that when the computer was first booting up, which would likely indicate that it was just a verbose boot, or a boot that lets the user see the code output when your computer boots up.

Although last December, investigators believed that they had found encrypted apps used by the terrorists to hide their attack plotting, that was when the investigation was still nascent. The final 55-page report now appears to show that encryption had a small to nonexistent role in the Paris attacks.

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