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Texting and Terrorism: Can Computers Understand your Texts?

2 mins read

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, many are asking how terrorists were able to mount a coordinated attack on a major city without the knowledge of post-9/11 spy agencies. Many blame encryption for the terrorists’ ability to remain undetected, however, the recent discovery that the terrorists used text messages seems to contradict these claims. Texts are typically sent with little to no encryption over cell phone networks and are universally collected by spy agencies, such as the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of the United Kingdom. So if messages are universally collected, and the perpetrators of the Paris attack likely used text messages to organize the attack, why were they not found prior to the attack?

The answer likely lies in the sheer amount of data collected by state-sponsored spying. Because there are so many messages, computers, not humans, must decide if any given text or call poses a threat to national security. The difference between an innocent text conversation between law-abiding citizens and one that coordinates an attack the kills hundreds or even thousands of people is subtle and computers are notoriously bad at extracting true meaning from natural human language. Just try asking Siri for anything more complicated than the weather tomorrow or to send a text message. Additionally, any scanning software must fit the specific terminology of the specific language that the terrorists are using to communicate. Currently, a computer has a hard time separating someone who is planning a Friday night out in Paris from someone coordinating a terrorist attack on Paris. Terrorists in most cases do not need to encrypt their messages, because human language alone is in most cases enough to thwart the computers reading them.

Unless our data processing techniques improve through revolutionary advances in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, we will likely miss a significant number of terrorist attacks despite the collection of the very phone calls and text messages used to plan them.

The problem is not that terrorists’ messages evade collection, it’s that billions of innocent messages and calls sent by law-abiding citizens cloud the data. The Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B. Comey has called for greater government access to encrypted messaging through phone applications such as iMessage and WhatsApp. The NSA already collects the majority of text messages, phone calls and emails that pass through the United States because they are unencrypted forms of communication that are easy for anyone with access to network traffic to intercept. Comey supports similar access to encrypted messages through a government backdoor in the encryption technologies themselves. The problem with this view is that any backdoor in an encryption technology can be used by anyone to gain access to the encrypted data.

Our current technology cannot handle the current volume of personal information, so why continue to add to such a torrent? Before we decide to undermine the security measures of the modern internet, we must ensure that such drastic measures actually result in real improvements within national security. Breaking security online to allow for spying would not only leave personal messages open to attack, but would also undermine the security measures banks use to secure the financial information of their customers. Before we expand our surveillance powers, we must consider the consequences of breaking parts of our modern world.

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