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Selling us safety: The huge PR problem spy agencies have on their hands

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:08PM EST

The horrendous November 13th attacks on Paris are exactly what intelligence agencies have told us all along: Something bad will happen because they can’t conduct massive surveillance operations in light of the Snowden revelations, and because more products and online services offer end-to-end encryption that can’t be tapped into.

The NSA and all its international partners might be right about encryption, but at the same time, they’re doing a poor job of selling it to the public. It’s all a huge PR mess.

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In light of the various terrorists attacks that hit multiple targets this year, including Paris (twice now, counting Charlie Hebdo), Beirut (a day before Paris), and the Russian passenger jet that exploded a few weeks ago, many government officials will tell us how we need special laws that would make it easier for spy agencies to get intel on targets, and how we need to spend more money on spying to prevent ISIS-like attacks.

“In the past several years because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of hand-wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists there have been some policy and legal and other actions taken that make our ability collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging,” CIA Director John Brennan said at a Center for Strategic & International Studies talk a few days ago (video below), according to The Verge.

He continued, “I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call, particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence and security service is doing…”

There’s simply no proof this proposed spying works. Do the air raids in Syria, based on intelligence received by the many nations involved in bombings, actually have the desired effect? Have any arrests made following the Paris attacks offer any clues as to what else is about to happen?

Have these intelligence agencies managed actually to thwart any other terrorist attacks in the recent past? What about in the years preceding Snowden’s revelations? We’ve all seen spy movies. We have a pretty good idea what happens to suspects caught before a terrorist attack takes place and it makes sense. Rather than revealing details about these failed attacks, the NSA and Co. would be better off milking the apprehended suspects for intelligence that might prevent future threats.

But that’s not very reassuring to the general public who’s told that it should agree with new laws that demand increased budgets for massive surveillance operations that may or may not be an invasion of privacy for regular Internet users. The problem is that we don’t get to see any results that would make the privacy tradeoff worthwhile. Sure, the NSA can record all my conversations because it caught 10 bad guys looking to blow up hundreds of innocent people in the past five months. That’s something you’re not going to hear anyone say.

And no, David Cameron’s revelations that U.K.’s secret services stopped seven attacks in the last six months aren’t enough. After all, these statements came after the Paris attacks — and they’re not even accurate.

“Our security services have stopped seven attacks in the last six months, albeit on a smaller scale,” Cameron said earlier this week. According to Daily Mail. Downing Street later clarified that it stopped seven attacks in the last year. The publication also revealed that on October 28th, MI5 chief Andrew Parker said “with our partners, we have thwarted six attempts at terrorist attacks in the UK in the last year, and several plots overseas.” These statements suggest that one attack should have taken place on U.K. soil at some point in the last three weeks, and also proves that intelligence agencies aren’t willing to explain what attacks they prevented or how.

More annoying is the fact that while there’s no real transparency concerning successful operations that have stopped terrorist hits around the world, there’s total transparency when it comes to some degree of incompetence. France was told numerous times that hits were coming. The U.S. warned its ally a few months ago, and France bombed Syria hoping to kill some of the people planning the attacks. Then Germany told France weeks ago that there was an imminent pre-planned terrorist attack for Paris, according to a SOFREP report.

A Turkey official told The Guardian that French authorities were informed twice about one of the suicide bombers, in December 2014 and June 2015, but French spies requested more information about him only after Friday’s attack. Finally, senior Iraqi intelligence officials warned coalition countries of imminent assaults by ISIS a day before the attacks last week, according to the Associated Press. Other reports have said that some of the radicals who died after killing at least 129 and injuring hundreds of civilians in Paris were known to law enforcement in Europe.

France, for reasons unknown, failed to prevent last week’s tragedy. And yes, it’s likely that intelligence conducted in the recent past through sophisticated operations helped French set up swift raids in the aftermath of November 13th, arresting many suspects, and culminating in the assault on an apartment building in Paris that was sheltering other ISIS members and possibly the mastermind behind the attacks. This operation may have even prevented a second attack on Paris in the process (images above).

It’s also clear that a country as resourceful as France can’t handle this issue by itself. France, for the first time in EU history, invoked a mutual defense article that forces other countries to help out in any way they can. But government officials and intelligence agencies have yet to prove to regular citizens that massive spying operations actually work in this complex war on terror. All we see are failures like last week’s attacks that leave hundreds of people dead and injured, and that leave millions wondering anyone is really making sure they’re safe.

Oh, and asking tech companies to include backdoors in encryption and to store personal customer data for more time isn’t the way to do it either. Let’s all pretend for a second that many of these extremists are at least as sophisticated and well-funded as the NSA & Co. and, therefore, have ways of communicating without anyone listening in. Breaking encryption would only jeopardize the online security of regular users when they’re hit by hackers who would inevitably find the same security holes, as we’ve seen in the past.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.