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What We Know and Don't Know About How the Paris Attackers Communicated

Spoiler: We don't know much.

Jiri Flogel / Shutterstock

There’s been a lot of inaccurate reporting on how the terrorists carried out last Friday’s bloody attacks in Paris, such as whether or not they used encrypted communication and if that involved use of Facebook’s WhatsApp or Sony’s PlayStation.

Here’s what we know, what we don’t know, and what’s possible:

What We Know: Very little. Aside from some reporting containing thinly sourced information, we know practically nothing from reliable sources about how the attackers communicated. The New York Times initially cited WhatsApp when describing how the attackers may have communicated, but that report has since been revised. The Times now says it’s unclear if encryption was employed at all by the attackers. The Times’ story also was changed to cite WhatsApp as part of a comment made by a Belgian official days before the Paris attacks.

More facts will no doubt emerge as the investigation progresses.

We We Don’t Know: Whether the attackers used WhatsApp or PlayStation or any other digital communication. For now, this part of the story appears to be false and can be tracked to two threads. First, there were reports that attackers may have used the PS4’s chat services to communicate and coordinate their plans. Second, news reports started picking up comments made by a Belgian law enforcement official, a few days before the attacks, who said, “Playstation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp.” The story was further fueled by this story at Forbes, which has since been corrected.

What’s Possible or Likely: There’s a very good chance the terrorists used encrypted services to plan the attacks. White House administration officials have previously said ISIS has used encryption for the past year or more. Apps like Apple’s iMessage, Facebook’s WhatsApp, and others like Telegram, Wickr and Signal are all freely available and offer differing levels of encryption. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a scorecard comparing different services.) We know that one group claiming responsibility for the attack that brought down the Russian airliner in Egypt last month did so via Telegram.

One more thing: It’s entirely possible that the attackers communicated face-to-face more than they did electronically. As Wired points out some of the attackers lived in the same town in Belgium, making it pretty easy to meet and communicate the old-fashioned way: In person.

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