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Bullet holes were filled with flowers at one of the restaurants involved in the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. (Credit: Greg Sandoval)
Bullet holes were filled with flowers at one of the restaurants involved in the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. (Credit: Greg Sandoval)

How lucky for Yahoo. Michael Rogers, National Security Agency (NSA) director, sits down for an interview and provides the perfect argument against Apple’s well-publicized stance on protecting privacy.

Or did he?

Apple generated a lot of headlines on Wednesday by announcing it would oppose a court order to hack into an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. The company maintains that providing a “master key” for iPhones would clear the way for all kinds of diabolical intrusions. Later in the day, Yahoo News posted an interview with Rogers.

In the interview, recorded last week, Yahoo reporter Michael Isikoff asked Rogers whether the encrypted messages used by ISIS hindered the NSA’s ability to learn about the Nov. 13 Paris attacks beforehand. In Isikoff’s story about the interview, he wrote that Rogers said the attacks went undetected as “a result” of ISIS’ encryption. But watch the video, Rogers never said that.

“Some of [ISIS’] communications were encrypted,” Rogers said. “We did not generate the insights ahead of time. Clearly had we known, Paris would not have happened.”

Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency (photo: Yahoo)
Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency (photo: Yahoo)

It’s unclear what Rogers meant when he said “clearly, had we known.” Is he referring to knowing what was in the messages or is speaking generally about the plan? I believe he meant the latter. Rogers can’t plausibly claim the NSA would have prevented the Paris attack had the encrypted ISIS messages been intercepted. He doesn’t know what was in those communications.

According to reports, the terrorists sometimes messaged each other via WhatsApp and Telegram, which boast end-to-end encryption to protect their users’ privacy. But we also know the attackers often sent unencrypted messages. In the interview, Rogers clearly acknowledged that.  Why didn’t the unencrypted messages lead to the discovery of the plot?

To be sure, Rogers said in the interview that encryption makes it “harder” to unearth terrorist plans. He said that to learn “when something is going to happen, what [terrorists] are shaping, what the particulars are,” in a timely manner the NSA needs the “contents” of communications. But he also said doing away with encryption may not be necessary.

Watch the interview. It’s worth knowing what Rogers thinks, as the debate over encryption is likely to heat up.

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