Quartz Weekend Brief—Encryption and Brussels, microscopic carvings, parrot witnesses

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Will unbreakable encryption keep us safer, or will it help terrorists carry out more attacks like the one this week in Brussels?

It’s too early to know if the Brussels bombers used encryption to communicate, according to the US attorney-general (though that didn’t stop politicians proclaiming they had). We do know, however, that terrorists don’t need encryption to kill and maim.

ISIL’s strategy in last year’s Paris attacks and others was simple: avoid trackable electronic communications like email and messaging apps in favor of in-person meetings and disposable devices, or “burner phones,” that are quickly activated, used briefly, and then dumped. Communications from the Paris attacks were reportedly (paywall) largely unencrypted, and investigators have found much of their intelligence through informants, wiretaps, and device-tracking rather than by trying to decipher secret messages.

That’s not to say that terrorists won’t use encryption to carry out heinous acts. They will. But encryption is by now a fact of life: your apps, credit cards, web browsers and smartphones run encryption algorithms every day. Soon, perhaps, they will be unbreakable.

Governments face two unpalatable options: force companies to build ”backdoors” for their spies, as the FBI has tried to get Apple to do, or accept encryption as a fact of life while finding better ways to stop bad guys. That decision may have already been made for them; third-party encryption software is readily available, so Apple or no Apple, terrorists will find ways to use it.

It’s important to remember that for ISIL, the carnage is a means to an end. The goal of its few but painful attacks is to weaken faith in open societies’ ability to protect their citizens, undermine their democratic principles, and thus push them into more closely resembling the theocratic surveillance state ISIL wants to build. That’s not a war the West, or any democracy, can afford to lose.—Michael Coren

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

The artist who works only in between heartbeats. Kassia St Clair profiles Graham Short, a British artist who has hand-engraved the Lord’s Prayer on a pinhead, Queen Elizabeth on a gold speck in the eye of a needle, and other works you need a microscope to see. Nobody else goes to the lengths he does, he says, “and I don’t blame them either.”

Olive Garden’s double standards on poverty. Though the US restaurant chain gives millions of meals a year to the poor, many of its own staff are so poor they need food stamps—and they aren’t allowed to touch surplus food. Deena Shanker on a restaurant industry whose low-wage policies make for cheap meals but cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year in assistance programs.

Is modern parenting giving kids depression? The data show a rapid rise in mental-health problems among young people in the US and UK in the past few years. Jenny Anderson talks to psychologists and outlines the theories about how the changing nature of play, parenting, marriage, schooling, technology, and other factors are stressing kids out.

Europe’s border problem. The EU’s open internal borders are being blamed for the ease with which terrorists can attack cities like Brussels. Actually, Aamna Mohdin explains, the borders aren’t open enough; in national security and intelligence, the EU still functions largely as separate countries, and that’s hindering its anti-terrorism efforts.

The case against paying college athletes. With every “March Madness” basketball season the cry goes up for US college athletes to be paid instead of giving their labor for free. That’s solving the wrong problem, argues Allison Schrager; paying athletes in education is a fine idea, but the way it’s being done now is letting them down.

Also: Remember to check out the new season of Actuality, our podcast, which interviews entrepreneurs and scientists doing things that “they said couldn’t be done.”

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

The parrot who saw too much. Could a talking macaw hold the clue to a grisly murder? Could it serve as a witness? Could it be offered witness protection? Laurel Braitman delves into the obscure and little-known history of animals in criminal justice, for Atlas Obscura.

Wikipedia’s Angolan piracy dilemma. In a country where internet access is otherwise wildly expensive, Angolans have ingeniously repurposed the “zero-rated” (i.e., free) services from Facebook and Wikipedia to construct vast clandestine file-sharing networks. Jason Koebler reports for Motherboard on a tale of first-world laws and ethics stumped by third-world innovation.

The case for US drug legalization. Dan Baum’s essay in Harper’s begins with a bombshell—the Nixon White House’s war on drugs was explicitly designed as a campaign against black people and leftists. National legalization may sound like an impossible utopia, Baum writes, but it would work with “creativity and management,” two things the US prides itself on.

Desperately seeking surgery. It took Stephen Phillips five months to find a set of doctors he trusted to perform “the mother of all surgeries”—a 16-hour endeavor, comparable to having 10 abdominal operations—to cure a rare appendix cancer. Eric Broodman for Stat explains a treatment so brutal and risky only about a hundred American hospitals offer it.

The fight for a $14 billion athlete. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors basketball team are breaking records with unconventional play. They’re also disrupting the apparel business. ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss explains how Nike lost the endorsement of Curry, the most marketable athlete in the US, to Under Armour by making the same mistakes old-school coaches did.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, microscopic engravings, and parrot testimony to You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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