Setting the Record Straight on Edward Snowden and the Paris Attacks

Dann Albright 25-11-2015

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, there’s been a great deal of discussion in the United States and around the world about data surveillance programs Tomorrow's Surveillance: Four Technologies The NSA Will Use to Spy on You - Soon Surveillance is always on the cutting edge of technology. Here are four technologies that will be used to violate your privacy over the next few years. Read More , their merits, and whether or not the public’s greater awareness of these programs over the past two years enabled terrorists to fly under the radar in Europe leading up the attacks.


There’s a lot of confusing information out there, and a lot of rhetoric flying back and forth from all sides, so let’s talk through the issues to get everything straight.

What Did We Know Before the Attacks?

Because the attacks are still very recent, and some suspects are still at large, intelligence agencies haven’t discussed in detail what was known before the attacks. However, according to a New York Times article, five of the nine men wanted in connection to the attacks had previously committed crimes, and four of them likely had connections to previous terrorist activities.

At least three of the attackers also have connections to Molenbeek, a well-known haven for extremists in Belgium, further suggesting that anti-terrorist organizations in Europe may have known who they were and that they could potentially be a threat.


In addition to this, there are reports that the French and German governments met a month prior to the attacks in response to reports that terrorists could be targeting France in the near future. It’s also been reported that a car was stopped in Germany, the driver was arrested, and weapons were confiscated—both were likely related to the Paris attacks.


What does all this have to do with Edward Snowden? Let’s jump to this week, and you’ll see.

“A Lot of Hand-Wringing”

John Brennan, the current director of the CIA, has stated that the “hand-wringing” that took place in the wake of Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance led to international authorities missing important signs that the Paris attacks were being planned:

“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 that make our ability, collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging.”

James Woolsley, the former director of the CIA, says that Snowden has “blood on his hands” after Paris.

Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate, thinks “we need to restore the metadata What Can Government Security Agencies Tell From Your Phone's Metadata? Read More program,” the NSA’s collection of vast amounts of data on US citizens that is stored on government servers The NSA Is Storing Its Data In The Cloud. But Is It Secure? In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, the National Security Agency (NSA) is turning to cloud storage for their data. After they have collected information about you, how secure will it be? Read More (the program is still active, though the data will be stored on phone companies’ servers and accessible only by warrant starting later this month). Marco Rubio stated that “[T]he weakening of our intelligence gathering capabilities leaves America vulnerable.”



Multiple Republican candidates have stated that they would increase surveillance in areas with Muslim populations within the United States. We haven’t had time to see how mass surveillance comes up in the rhetoric of many of the candidates (especially the Democrats), but they’re almost certainly scrambling to come up with new policy stances that will soothe the public’s fear of terrorism on American soil.

A Closer Look

People are scared. And that’s totally understandable. ISIS has proven that anyone can be a target, anywhere in the world, at any time. And that’s really frightening. But we need to be very careful about how we respond to this threat. There are a lot of different ideas that people are throwing around about surveillance, and we’ll go through them one at a time.

To get started, let’s break down the idea that more mass surveillance will help prevent future attacks like this.


First of all, mass surveillance means that an organization will be collecting data on a huge number of people at all times. People that aren’t currently suspects or under suspicion of being connected to terrorist cells. People like your neighbor, your mom, your kids’ teacher. Is that where you want governmental resources to be spent?


Or should it be spent on people who are already under suspicion of being connected to terrorist organizations? The people who were involved in the Paris attacks were already in the government’s top-secret S files, and the French authorities still didn’t see the attack coming. Monitoring the cell phone metadata What Can Government Security Agencies Tell From Your Phone's Metadata? Read More of the rest of their citizens wouldn’t have helped.

This is the kind of monitoring that many Republicans in the United States are currently calling for. And while I have no problem with careful monitoring of terror suspects, I’m confident in saying that increased mass surveillance isn’t going to help. In fact, it could hinder our attempts in trying to identify potential terrorists.


According to Glenn Greenwald, the NSA is collecting so much data that it doesn’t even know what it has in its archives. Should our analysts be sorting through billions of points of data on all of our citizens or just focusing on those who have ties to terrorist organizations?

Second, the idea that encryption How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More is what kept authorities from discovering the attack plans. This hasn’t been specifically stated, but it’s likely to be implied in the coming months during discussions of how we can prevent another attack like this.

Some politicians have already come out saying that they’d like to ban or restrict the use of encryption Why Snapchat & iMessage Could Really Be Banned In The UK Speaking to a room full of party activists in Nottingham, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that encryption for messaging would be banned should his party gain a majority at the next General Election. Read More , and their voices are generally joined by others after events like the Paris attacks. But when you hear someone using this line of reasoning, remember that terrorists don’t just encrypt their data and instantly become invisible to intelligence agencies. There’s a lot more to it.

Also, remember that metadata collection works whether communication is encrypted or not. So if a politician talks about using programs like the NSA’s metadata collection to combat terrorists’ use of encryption—as they undoubtedly will—don’t be fooled by their conflation of the issues. Metadata is good for creating models of communications networks, but that’s not going to indicate that an attack is forthcoming. The content of a message is still hidden.

And finally, let’s talk about Edward Snowden. Brennan, Woolsley, and many others are saying that Snowden’s revelations directly or indirectly led to this attack. Glenn Greenwald, as usual, puts it better than anyone else could:

“One key premise here seems to be that prior to the Snowden reporting, The Terrorists helpfully and stupidly used telephones and unencrypted emails to plot, so Western governments were able to track their plotting and disrupt at least large-scale attacks. That would come as a massive surprise to the victims of the attacks of 2002 in Bali, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London, 2008 in Mumbai, and April 2013 at the Boston Marathon. How did the multiple perpetrators of those well-coordinated attacks — all of which were carried out prior to Snowden’s June 2013 revelations — hide their communications from detection?

“This is a glaring case where propagandists can’t keep their stories straight. The implicit premise of this accusation is that The Terrorists didn’t know to avoid telephones or how to use effective encryption until Snowden came along and told them. Yet we’ve been warned for years and years before Snowden that The Terrorists are so diabolical and sophisticated that they engage in all sorts of complex techniques to evade electronic surveillance.”

There are a lot of ways that terrorists can communicate that wouldn’t set off the government’s metadata alarms. Disposable cell phones 4 Good Reasons To Get an Emergency Burner Phone Your smartphone has tons of features, and that's a great thing. Sometimes, you just need a basic phone to keep around for emergencies. Let's look at why. Read More , communication through gaming forums (a medium that has reportedly been used in the past), USB sticks, and a variety of other methods that don’t require regular, patterned cellular communication are out there. And at least three of the Paris attackers lived in the Molenbeek neighborhood, and a number of them frequented a bar there; there’s no reason they couldn’t have just communicated in person. These methods and others like the have been used for decades, not just since 2013.

Did Edward Snowden’s revelations cause the Paris attacks? No. Did they make the attack more likely to succeed? No. Did they alert terrorists to the fact that they were being monitored? No. Don’t fall for any of this nonsense.

So What Should We Do?

Of course, we’re faced with a very serious issue here. How do we prevent another attack like the one we saw in Paris? I’m confident that increased mass surveillance isn’t the way to go. Increased scrutiny and continued monitoring of people with ties to terrorist organizations seems like a good start. And the discontinuance of the NSA’s metadata program would probably help, too, by concentrating the data that our analysts need to go through.

But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. De-radicalization efforts, increased border scrutiny, refugee screening, and dozens of other strategies have been suggested, and each has its merits. You’ll likely cast your vote on which of these you think is the best idea during the next major election in your country, and I hope this article has been helpful in showing you that many issues are being conflated and used to push intelligence-gathering agendas, even where they wouldn’t be useful. Please continue thinking critically.

This is a serious issue with grave consequences, and I sincerely hope that we find a good strategy for dealing with it. Until then, though, it’s all up in the air.

What do you think about politicians’ reinvigorated calls for surveillance and the restriction of encryption? Do you think these strategies would help in the fight against ISIS and other terror organizations? Where do you draw the line between personal privacy and national security? Share your (civil, conversational) thoughts below!

Image credits: The New York Times, scyther5 via

Related topics: Metadata, Surveillance.

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  1. Anonymous
    November 26, 2015 at 12:36 am

    Just some random comments.

    Let's disabuse ourselves of the idea that somehow NSA, CIA, GCHQ and others can be made to stop their surveillance of people and collection of electronic signals. With information being the most valuable commodity around, even if indiscriminate eavesdropping and electronic data collection were to be specifically outlawed, the intelligence agencies would continue to engage in it but much more sub-rosa.

    Anything that Brennan and Woolsey say publicly is nothing more than trying to deflect the blame for terrorist attacks from the intelligence community and dump it on somebody else. Just as with 9/11, Madrid, Mumbai, et. al., the intelligence community did not interpret the data they had properly and it was caught by surprise by the attacks.

    Anything Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and other politicians say can be discounted as politically expedient bloviating. The politicians know what the peepul want to hear so that is what they say.

    Has anybody come up with a foolproof way of positively identifying a terrorist, yet? I don't mean somebody who is wearing an explosive vest and is firing an AK-47 indiscriminately into a crowd of innocent people. By that time, it is too late and anybody even with the intelligence of a goldfish can identify The Terrorist. Are cops and spooks still relying on profiling to determine who is or is not a terrorist?

    Shortly after the Paris attacks, William Bratton, Police Commissioner of New York City, was being on 60 Minutes. During the interview he stated that what gives him and the police department the worst nightmares is not a coordinated attack by some terrorist group but a random, "lone wolf" attack by a sympathizer because that cannot be anticipated or foreseen.

    "the idea that encryption is what kept authorities from discovering the attack plans. This hasn’t been specifically stated"
    A few days after the Paris attacks, the head of New York City's Anti-Terrorist Taskforce was being interviewed by a talking head. During the interview he decried the use of encryption and secure means of communications by Internet users. While he did not come right out say that encryption should be outlawed, through the tone of his voice, facial expressions and body langiage he made it clear that he would be much happier if encryption did not exist.

    • Dann Albright
      November 27, 2015 at 10:17 pm

      When I was writing this article, there hadn't been many statements specifically made about encryption, but in the days following it, a lot more people called out encryption as being an important part of the attacks. Telegram has been mentioned a few times as an app that ISIS is using—not sure if it's been mentioned in conjunction with the Paris attacks or not, but I've definitely heard it brought up. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the coming days when politicians are trying to get elected and talking about national security.

  2. Anonymous
    November 25, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    The constitution states that the job of government is to provide for our freedom and security. If it provides for our security but not our freedom, it is not doing its job.

    The idea that the primary job of government is merely security is false.

    • Anonymous
      November 26, 2015 at 12:40 am

      It could be argued that where there is a government, there is no freedom. Therefore, a government cannot provide freedom.

      • Anonymous
        November 26, 2015 at 2:00 am

        “It could be argued that where there is a government, there is no freedom. Therefore, a government cannot provide freedom.”

        That's called Anarchy. AND it could be argued that Anarchy is not freedom as well. Also, contrary to Faux News beliefs, there are examples of other Governments where you have better examples of freedoms than the U.S. Just because our Government is corrupted by corporate influence, does not mean it cannot be fixed. Separation of Business and State would be a move in the right direction. Instead we are headed in the wrong direction and part of that corruption is to blame for things like the loss of privacy and your freedoms. Please make a note of it…

        On a side note, isn't it interesting I cannot post to using a vpn. Either a glitch, or could it be that those cookies sales work better without a vpn. Inquiring minds would like to know...

        • Anonymous
          November 26, 2015 at 10:28 pm

          fcd76218 probably meant STATE which is a coercive monopoly type of government that we are used to living under, and not the concept of government in general which we probably all support except for the most delusional.

        • Anonymous
          November 27, 2015 at 5:30 pm

          Your distinction between STATE and government is an artificial one. All definitions of "government" boil down to a smaller group of individuals controlling how a much larger group of individuals will conduct themselves in all aspects of their day to day lives. If that is not coercion, I don't know what is.

          "the concept of government in general "
          That concept is as much a contradiction in terms as the concept of a benevolent despot.

        • Anonymous
          November 27, 2015 at 8:57 pm

          Neither I nor a company is responsible for how many people are around unless you have evidence.

          And I definitely do make a distinction between a company that has its place as a monopoly on the market voluntarily versus one that maintains its status by coercion and killing people if necessary.

        • Anonymous
          November 27, 2015 at 5:35 pm

          Anarchy need not imply bomb throwing. In a mature, logical society, anarchy is the ultimate freedom because it allows everyone to do what they please.

        • Dann Albright
          November 27, 2015 at 10:15 pm

          Taco, I'm not sure what the deal with the VPN is. I'll look into it; that's not something I've heard of before. We're updating and making changes to the site all the time, and we get weird issues like that occasionally. I'll let you know if I find out anything!

    • Dann Albright
      November 27, 2015 at 10:14 pm

      Howard, you bring up an interesting point with the balance between security and freedom here. Obviously, both of those ideas are subject to interpretation; what you think defines freedom and what I think define security may be very different from what others think. And when there's a small group in charge of security (as there must necessarily be), their opinions can end up forming a lot of policies. People in favor of mass surveillance would likely say that we should (or possibly need to) sacrifice some freedom in favor of security—or argue that privacy isn't completely necessary for freedom. There's a lot of ambiguity and personal interpretation, and that's why I love talking about this stuff!

      • Anonymous
        November 27, 2015 at 10:57 pm

        Well security probably is very subjective. I think freedom is another story as the constitution clearly publishes a bill of rights to help define the nature of that concept and to vary from it would not be a subjective decision in my view.

        • Dann Albright
          November 30, 2015 at 8:55 pm

          That certainly makes sense to me. Although, as we've seen, interpreting the bill of right can definitely cause a lot of subjective argumentation (the current battle over gun control / ownership is a great example). As with everything, it often comes down to individual priorities. But I agree that security is subjective; as a culture, we're still trying to figure out what it means. The same goes with privacy; what's an acceptable level of privacy? What can we reasonably expect to be kept private? All of those things are a big mess of ideology at the moment.

        • Anonymous
          November 30, 2015 at 11:29 pm

          I don't think privacy is all that subjective but relies upon one's property rights which should dictate what/where you have control versus the property rights of others where you have little say, if any.
          Those property rights would include contractual obligations that one may have with phone companies or ISP's etc. AND that they have with you. Sometimes these obligations aren't always clear but usually are implied which is when we rely on our court system.

          I have a general view on substance control which I don't vary based upon the substance as many people do. I oppose it whether drugs or guns.

        • Dann Albright
          December 1, 2015 at 8:06 pm

          I see what you're saying—I hadn't thought of it as related to property rights, but that definitely makes sense. I think I was thinking in more of a moral sense that applies to everyone; property rights can differ greatly based on where you are and who's in charge, and that makes a big difference, but I was thinking about a more overarching view of what constitutes a reasonable degree of privacy. Very interesting stuff to think about!