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Paris terror attacks spark encryption debate'

20 November 2015

The terror attacks in Paris have sparked fresh debate about the risks and rewards of encrypted communications in smartphones and other devices and whether to allow law enforcement ''extraordinary access'' in pursuit of criminals and terrorists.

Encryption, which involves, scrambling messages so as to render them unreadable to all except to the person with the key to unscramble them protects a large majority of users from cybertheft, intrusions and disruption.

Tech giants Apple and Google, along with some independent software-makers, had been creating products with built-in encryption that cannot be cracked easily by law enforcement agencies even with a warrant, although they possessed some workarounds.

Apple's popular iMessage system over the iOS8 operating system encrypts messages, and unlock keys are only available to end users.

According to customers, the tech companies want to protect privacy, but with encryption communications of terrorists and other criminals is also protected.

The Islamic State had, in the past used an unencrypted program known as Telegram for promotion and recruitment. According to Telegram, it was trying to close down the accounts, but had not been entirely successful.

Not much is known about how the Paris terrorists plotted their attack as they might have given the slip to enforcement personnel by using encrypted means or by avoiding digital channels altogether.

The Paris police recovered an unencrypted smartphone in a trash bin near the Bataclan concert hall that contained the text message ''Let's go, we're starting.''

Meanwhile, there was no evidence that the Paris attacks had changed technology companies' view that strong encryption protected consumers, and that providing a way for police to eavesdrop would open the door to exploitation by criminals and repressive governments.

The Information Technology Industry Council, who members include Apple and Microsoft Corp, said in a statement,  ''Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.''

However, according to commentators, Apple, Google and others would face a difficult challenge in maintaining that position because they would not like to be seen brushing off the implications of a tragedy.

''It's not the ideal time to be out there touting the benefits of encryption,'' said an attorney who has worked on encryption issues, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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