How to improve international cyber-security
November 30, 2015
THE VAST stores of digital information generated by everyday lives—communications data, CCTV footage, credit-card records and much more—are now yielding invaluable clues about the terrorist attacks in Paris and are helping guide the hunt for the surviving plotters. But prevention is better than cure. The attacks have highlighted the failure of the authorities to share information across borders and agencies. How can this be improved?
Each government sets different rules for what data may be looked at, by whom and with what authority. This is partly due to politics (Belgium has numerous squabbling police forces); and partly because of legal restrictions—the European Parliament takes privacy extremely seriously, as does the German government. Many Europeans fear that any data shared with America will be snooped on by spy agencies. The attacks also reignited a long-running debate about encryption—encoding messages such as e-mails, in ways that even government intelligence agencies cannot break (it is easy to make a code, even with an ordinary computer, and much harder to break it). There is no proof, however, that the Paris attackers used encrypted communications. They seem to have mostly communicated by sending innocuous-seeming messages over regular mobile phones. Banning encryption, or forcing companies to weaken the services that they provide, would be ineffective: there are plenty of free encrypted-messaging services available. It would also be misguided: for security against the huge wave of cybercrime now afflicting individuals, businesses and governments, we should be using more and better encryption, not less and worse.
Breaking down barriers to information-sharing is a much better idea. Terrorists and criminals cross national borders easily. Law-enforcement should be able to do the same. The police should have access to databases such as passenger name records on internal European flights, and the fingerprints of people who have arrived claiming refugee status. Interior ministers are already pushing strongly for this. Public worries about privacy and abuse of power are reasonable, but the answer to that is good intelligence oversight. Britain for example, is making reforms which which would require the spy agencies to have judicial authorisation before they bug individuals, rather than just doing on a politician’s say-so. The state is the enemy in Hollywood screenplays, but not in real life.