After every recent terrorist attack, Americans have gotten accustomed to asking themselves two questions:

  1. How will the Republican Party use this to their advantage in the 2016 election?
  2. What impact will this attack have on our personal liberties?

Let’s focus our attention today on door number two: Privacy and encryption. The apparently unstoppable rise of ISIS has us asking some fundamental questions about the things we value the most in our increasingly interconnected and digital world.

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Our Leaders Keep Ignoring the Truth

It’s like clockwork. Go back a few pages in your calendar to the Paris terror attacks. Remember the response? It was almost too predictable. So-called security experts in the government were positively shaking in their boots, all too ready to throw encryption under the bus in the name of national security.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth that our leaders seem determined to forget: There’s absolutely no evidence that the unscrupulous individuals who carried out the attacks in Paris communicated using encrypted means. None. In point of fact, all of the available evidence suggests the exact opposite: The terrorists were communicating using devices and services that weren’t actually encrypted at all.

We’re meant to be ignorant of that fact. And if you get your news exclusively from Fox, or from any of the cable monopolies, really, you’re probably ready to believe them. But what’s the goal here? What’s the endgame?

It’s pretty simple, really — as well as tremendously creepy. And it’s the same thing the FBI is clamoring for in its ill-conceived attack on Apple’s encryption standards: They want a backdoor into encryption standards.

Though, in fairness:

It’s not as though they’re doing this just to amass more power over the American people for its own sake — at least, I don’t think so. Real life very seldom resembles the plot of a James Bond film. No, the truth is a little simpler — and a little sadder. The leaders in government who are screaming the loudest that we need to undermine security and encryption standards are simply scared, just like anyone else has a right to be. But their ability to manage their fear leaves much to be desired.

Brussels and Beyond

In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS — this time in Brussels, leaving more than 34 people dead — all of the same voices are continuing their same tired chorus: Encryption is bad.

Representative Adam Schiff of California has been particularly vociferous: “We do not know yet what role, if any, encrypted communications played in these attacks … But we can be sure that terrorists will continue to use what they perceive to be the most secure means to plot their attacks.”

Did you follow that logic? I sure didn’t. What he’s saying is that encryption may or may not have played a role in law enforcement’s inability to foresee and prevent the attack in Brussels — but that we need to work toward dismantling it all the same.

Schiff, it should be noted, was also a vocal proponent of the universally despised CISA, which is one of the most egregious assaults on individual liberty launched by the US government in the modern history of this country. But he supported the bill only after claiming that it was an improvement over its predecessor, which he said “didn’t do enough” to protect the privacy of our citizens. Guess what, Representative Schiff? Neither does CISA.

And now here he is, a handful of months later, arguing publically that the American people should cast aside any assumptions we have about our private lives remaining private.

So which is it?

A Chorus of Ignorance

Schiff is hardly alone in proclaiming his ignorance loudly and publically. Diane Feinstein, another Democrat from California, seems to have signaled her support for the erosion of encryption standards, and will introduce legislation that will do untold damage to technology companies’ ability to protect their customers, and for the American people to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, even the venerable public news outlet NPR is getting behind this kind of fear-mongering, along with a veteran reporter from The New York Times.

Consider, now, the division we see before us in the ways that our two major political parties tend to respond to terrorist attacks:

  1. Republicans default to demonizing Muslims across the world. Donald Drumpf threatens to bar them from entering the country, and Ted Cruz threatens to inch the US ever-closer to becoming a police state by actively patrolling, surveilling and “securing” Muslim communities on US soil. Keep in mind that, while ISIS does practice a fundamentalist approach to Islam, they absolutely do not speak for a majority of the world’s Islamists.
  2. Democrats preach tolerance toward moderate Muslims — they have that going for them, at least. Instead, they demonize the likes of Apple and other technology companies that make privacy and encryption a high priority, ignoring entirely the almost total lack of evidence that encryption has had anything to do with precipitating these heinous attacks.

One party that doesn’t understand how religion works, and another party that doesn’t understand how technology works. As usual, the American people are caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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