NSA Director Adm Mike Rogers
NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers said Thursday that terrorist groups will continue to implement the latest technology to amplify their message. Reuters/Joshua Roberts

The current political debate surrounding the use of encryption and other technology meant to boost user privacy is a “waste of time” that will not help the United States defeat the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, said Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the U.S. National Security Agency. Rogers predicted Thursday that non-state actors will increase their use of technology to amplify their message and threaten the U.S.

Rogers delivered that message, along with a preview of other digital threats, at a meeting conducted Thursday by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

His remarks, which also touched on the Internet of Things and the benefits of increased internet connectivity, came amid a contentious political debate in the U.S. over whether new laws should prevent Apple, Google and other technology companies from making it impossible to intercept user communications.

Privacy advocates have maintained that solid encryption protects user data, while opponents have suggested that terrorist groups could exploit this technology to plan an attack.

“Encryption is foundational to the future, so spending time about ‘Hey encryption is bad and we ought to do away with it’ is just a waste of time to me,” Rogers said. “Given that foundation we’ve got to ask ourselves the best way to deal with it, and how do we meet those very legitimate concerns from multiple perspectives.”

Rogers’ remarks coincide with the introduction of multiple bills in separate states that would attempt to limit encryption. One California bill introduced Wednesday includes language that seems to take aim at mobile Apple devices by requiring “a smartphone that is manufactured on or after January 1, 2017, and sold in California, to be capable of being decrypted and unlocked by its manufacturer or operating system provider.” Another bill with nearly identical language was introduced in New York state last week.

New laws or not, the NSA director said he expects ISIS and other groups to continue leveraging technology as a critical component of their strategy. That’s a big challenge for the NSA, Rogers said, especially in a political climate in which the agency is viewed with suspicion.

“We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to deal with that,” Rogers said. “All of this is happening in a context in which the government is increasingly mistrusted and privacy concerns have never been higher. Given that big kettle, how do we make all of that work? That’s not an insignificant challenge for us.”