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New encryption technology is aiding terrorists, intelligence director says

New, commercially available encryption software 'had and is having major, profound effects on our ability' to collect intelligence, 'particularly against terrorists,' James Clapper told reporters at a Monitor-hosted breakfast.

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James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on April 25 in Washington, D.C.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor

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The Edward Snowden leaks have accelerated the sophistication of encryption technologies by “about seven years,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told reporters this morning. 

And that is not a development to be celebrated, he added in remarks at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. 

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“From our standpoint, it’s not a good thing.” 

New, commercially available encryption software “had and is having major, profound effects on our ability” to collect intelligence, “particularly against terrorists,” he warned.

That’s in large part because the Islamic State is “the most sophisticated user by far of the Internet.” They privately purchase software that “to ensure end-to-end encryption” of their communications.

“And so that is a major inhibitor to discerning plotting, principally by ISIL and others,” Mr. Clapper said, using one acronym for the Islamic State.

The seven year estimation comes from the National Security Agency, he said. 

It raises the issue of the tension between the need for security against cyber attacks – which as recently as February Clapper cited as a greater threat than terrorism – and the opposition to law enforcement against so-called unbreakable encryption software that, they say, could hinder their search for terrorists. 

Clapper for his part echoed President Obama’s warning against “absolutist positions” on the topic. “Somehow, we need to find a balance here,” he said. “I don’t know the technicalities of how we might arrive here, how we thread the needle” between how to “ensure privacy and security on an individual basis, as well as security in the context of what’s best for the collective good.”

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At the moment, he added, that goal “is an elusive holy grail that we’re pursuing.”

That said, he warned that the development of unbreakable encryption, which he likened to the possibility that that it could, in essence, “give the terrorists a pass.” 

Clapper warned Monday that the group has clandestine cells that are plotting more terrorist attacks in Germany, Italy, and England.

To this end, the United States is stepping up efforts to promote more intelligence sharing. In the meantime, since the recent IS attacks on Paris and Brussels, US intelligence officials have learned some things about the terrorist group, he said. 

For starters, they are “very op-sec conscious,” Clapper said. A former Air Force lieutenant general, he was using military parlance for “operational security.”

It is clear that IS is also taking advantage of the migrant crisis in Europe, he added. 

And that poses a formidable challenge for Europe. There is a “fundamental conflict” between European Union incentives and drives to promote openness and free movement of people and goods with privacy, “which is in some ways in conflict with the responsibilities that each country has as a nation-state to protect the borders and securities of their nations and peoples,” Clapper said.