Is Osama Bin Laden Using Encryption?

A few years ago I read an interview with a professor of journalism who argued that reporters needed to become advocates for particular views rather than simply reporters of facts. I have always thought this was a very bad idea, and USA Today demonstrated why today.

USA Today’s Jack Kelly filed a fluff piece basically repeating spook nonsense that strong encryption is helping out terrorists. After going through a long bit of nonsense claiming that Bin Laden has even moved into steganography, Kelly laments,

It’s no wonder the FBI wants all encryption programs to file what amounts to a “master key” with a federal authority that would allow them, with a judge’s permission, to decrypt a code in a case of national security. But civil liberties groups, which offer encryption programs on the Web to further privacy, have vowed to fight it.

Give me a break. This is just like gun control — the criminal elements aren’t going to use systems that require master keys. It comes across almost as if the spooks themselves don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.

The story, and others based on the same material, is surprisingly lacking in any sort of evidence other than the fact that terrorists use e-mail and in the pasth ave used relatively weak encryption schemes to hide some data. I’d like to see some proof that Bin Laden and his group are putting coded messages into pornography and placing it on the Internet (as folks on Slashdot noted, that might explain why porn takes so long to download!) or that they’re using Internet chat rooms to plan terrorist acts.

Remember this is the same group that claimed they had absolute incontrovertible proof that a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant was being used to manufacture chemical weapons. Bill Clinton bombed the plant based on that claim which turned out to be a complete lie.

This is just the last gasp of the intelligence agency to try to retain their monopoly on secrecy. Tune in next week when USA Today will discuss how child pornographers are using very big prime numbers to get away with their crimes.

When prime numbers are criminalized, only criminals will have prime numbers.


Terror groups hide behind Web encryption. Jack Kelley, USA Today, February 6, 2001.

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