It was another terrorist attack, years ago now and an ocean away in Boston, that awakened a debate about the panicked rush to judgment about who may be guilty and what may have gone wrong.
In the frenzied, chaotic moments after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, we knew only one thing: "We" had to find those responsible. Thus began a high-stakes online scavenger hunt that, though well-intentioned, was ultimately doomed. Internet users combing through clues fingered the wrong suspect, 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi, putting him through what one remorseful reddit user would later call "hell." The media ran with the suspicions and hounded Tripathi. He was later discovered dead of an apparent suicide in a Rhode Island river. The real perpetrators, of course, were Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
There's a similar rush to judgment going on right now in the wake of the Paris attacks, though it has little to do with identifying the perpetrators. In this case, the shootings have sparked a factually murky debate over what technology the terrorists used to communicate to each other and whether governments have enough powers to monitor those channels. Some lawmakers and officials have again criticized tech firms for developing messaging apps that use encryption technology and safeguard people's privacy.
But in fact, it turns out we do not have clear knowledge about what technologies the terrorists used. Indeed, several French outlets reported last night that a smartphone recovered near one of the massacre sites was not encrypted at all.
Only weeks ago, the White House gave up on pursuing laws that would make it easier for police to break through the encryption that safeguards many online communications. But in the days after the Paris attacks, high-ranking federal officials have reopened the debate. Momentum is being thrown back in favor of officials who have urged stronger police authority, some on Capitol Hill said.
"As a privacy advocate," Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said in an interview Wednesday, "this couldn't come at a worse time."
On Monday, for instance, during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CIA director John Brennan directly blamed encryption for hindering anti-terrorism efforts.
"There are a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now that make it exceptionally difficult, both technically as well as legally, for intelligence and security services to have the insight they need to uncover it," Brennan said. "And I do think this is a time for particularly Europe, as well as here in the United States, for us to take a look and see whether or not there have been some inadvertent or intentional gaps that have been created in the ability of intelligence and security services to protect the people that they are asked to serve."
The media has played a role in this, too.
Hours after the attacks in Paris, Forbes quickly pointed to remarks by a Belgian official who said that Islamic State militants use the PlayStation 4's chat functions as a way to communicate securely. The article also mentioned that a Sony PlayStation 4 was recovered in a police raid connected to the Paris investigation.
That report was later undermined by the real facts — that no PlayStation 4 had been collected and that the Belgian official had been talking about the use of PlayStation technology generally by terrorism suspects.
But it was too late. Reports spread across the news industry tying the PlayStation to the attacks (there is a second wave of stories sweeping the Internet trying to undo the damage).
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission suggested that one of the "specific things" Congress could do in response to the Paris attacks would be to revisit the nation's wiretapping laws. The chairman, Tom Wheeler, even cited the now-debunked reports on the Playstation 4's involvement in the incident, another sign of how the media has played a role in shaping the current policy atmosphere in Washington.
One congressional staffer I spoke to afterward told me that there's "a lot of energy and interest" in acting on the chairman's idea.
"It seems like the media was just led around by the nose by law enforcement," said a senior government official who works on technology issues and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue. "Law enforcement is taking advantage of a crisis where encryption hasn't proven to have a role. It's leading us in a less safe direction at a time when the world needs systems that are more secure."
In the wake of any attack, there is always the pressure to do something, anything. Doing nothing until the facts are clear is the politically difficult choice, even if it may be the correct one. The pressure to expand government surveillance predated the Paris attacks. But to the extent that the government now has renewed momentum for those efforts, it's hard to deny that the mainstream media shares some of the responsibility.
Staff Writer Andrea Peterson contributed to this story.