Once more, with feeling: expanding mass surveillance even further will not make us safer

So, who is to blame for the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS or deplorable acts by radicalised individuals like the horrible murder of drummer Lee Rigby in London on 22 May 2013? It depends on who you ask but there seems to be some consensus among the usual suspects that the social media – more specifically Facebook – are to blame. Immigration is to blame. And of course Edward Snowden.

Facebook should have checked “all website postings for possible terrorist content,” says a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in the British Parliament, which claims that had Facebook alerted MI5 to extremist content on the user profile of Lee Rigby’s killer, the murder could have been prevented.

Interestingly, the report also says that the intelligence agencies – despite committing several errors – could not have prevented the murder. At least not without the information from Facebook which the report considers a “safe haven for terrorists”.

Now I am not saying that Lee Rigby’s murder was anything other than a terrible atrocity. But to use it as an excuse to demand even greater surveillance powers when even “the Rigby report blithely conceded, “the government’s counter-terrorism programmes are not working”,” is not the way to respond to acts like this. Neither is exonerating the intelligence agencies and laying the blame squarely on Facebook. Glenn Greenwald’s comments on the matter make it clear how frankly paradoxical it is to claim that

the British intelligence agencies such as GCHQ and MI5 – despite being among the most aggressive and unrestrained electronic surveillance forces on the planet – had no possible way to have accessed [the] exchange [between Rigby’s killers]. But, the Committee said, the social media company not only had the ability – but also the duty – to monitor the communications of all its users and report anything suspicious to the UK Government.

Facebook’s social responsibility, which has been called upon several times since the release of the report, aside, surely agencies as formidable as GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 should not need Facebook to add to their already substantial haystack of intelligence:

[The ISC]’s report itself makes clear that the intelligence agencies of Her Majesty’s Government already collect such massive quantities of private communications that they have no ability even to understand what they’ve collected: in other words, they can’t detect terror plotting because they’re overloaded with the communications of millions of innocent people.

Similarly, the NSA has conceded that “at most one terrorist attack might have been foiled by NSA’s bulk collection of all American phone data”, highlighting yet again the questionable effectivity of bulk collection programmes – something which Barack Obama’s review panel has also previously stated. In the UK, Home Secretary Theresa May claims that surveillance has “foiled 40 plots since 2005”, but – as Seumas Milne correctly asks:

Who would know? Even ministers are in no position to judge the claims securocrats make about themselves.

Observer columnist David Mitchell, too, has some interesting things to say on the subject and, like him, I don’t trust May’s claims very much. But these claims make for great surveillance advertising. And rather than to address the problem that mass surveillance doesn’t seem to be working very well, and to perhaps review both their intelligence gathering practices and the insufficient legislation that regulates them, governments and their representatives resort to the latest fashionable means of deflection: inflammatory rhetoric. Seumas Milne isn’t wrong when he argues that

[i]t takes some mastery of spin to turn the litany of intelligence failures over last year’s butchery of the off-duty soldier Lee Rigby into a campaign against Facebook.

Yet, without fail, the same rhetoric about how terrorism and extremism can only be combated by use of extensive surveillance is used to justify granting additional powers to the agencies. Malcolm Rifkind (the ISC chair) and his committee aren’t the only ones doing so. The aforementioned Ms May is very proficient at it and so is David Cameron.

This is no different in the US, where Edward Snowden – always the anti-Christ – is being blamed for making information available to ISIS that allows them to protect their communications in the most sophisticated of ways. Tellingly, the US Congress has just defeated the USA Freedom Act, a bill that attempted to curb surveillance powers. Mind you, by the time the bill was defeated it has been watered down so much it wouldn’t have done a lot of good anyway:

The provisions limiting who might be watched and why remained extremely vague, to the disappointment of all defenders of civil liberties.

The apparent concession that the NSA would no longer hold years and years’ worth of communications data is worth very little in practice, since the telecommunications companies would still hold on to it.

[T]he definition of a legitimate target expanded in earlier stages of the bill, turning it into an amorphous, greedy phrase that might mean anything.

And yet, the bill

represented at least an attempt to draw up a principled and comprehensible framework within which the intelligence and security services could do their vital work in the digital world. Now that it has failed we are back in the business of messy, ad hoc and incoherent compromise.

However, more to the point of this post and perhaps more concerning – and more telling – than the actual defeat of the Freedom Act is the shouting about the threat of ISIS that occurred prior to it: “God forbid we wake up tomorrow and [Islamic State] is in the United States.

UK officials are only too eager to lap this kind of rhetoric up and regurgitate it as it suits them.

As such, Lord West is reported to have said:

Since the revelations of the traitor Snowden, terrorist groups – in particular Isil (Islamic State) – have changed their methods of communications and shifted to other ways of talking to each other. Consequently there are people dying who actually would now be alive.

Essentially what he is saying is that Snowden is a traitor with the blood of ISIS’s victims on his hands and, by inference, Lee Rigby’s blood too, as the Mail so craftily suggests.

Tellingly, the agencies’ hands are clean – the reasons their operations fail is because Edward Snowden blew the whistle and tech companies like Facebook (who also have blood on their hands) won’t cooperate. And more people will die unless governments introduce legislation that strengthens or expands surveillance powers.

This is a false and dangerous conclusion and one of the single best arguments against both the mass collection and retention of data and the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” defense of both surveillance and disinterest in protecting oneself was made in an open thread on the Guardian website debating whether or not Edward Snowden’s revelations had had any effect:

In the Netherlands it was practiced that every local parish used to keep a list of all the people who lived in the region, and a small amount of information about them: their place of birth, fathers name and religion. Nothing really important, until 1940. Jews in the Netherlands suffered the most heavily at the hands of the Nazis than in any other country. It only takes a change in government (UKIP anyone?) to make the personal information held by other parties very, very relevant.

(Double check the claim about the Netherlands here if you like.)

UKIP obviously comes to mind but then, given the targeting of Muslim schools by UK schools inspector Ofsted recently, the comment rings even more true. Terrorism isn’t the only extremism on the rise in Britain and elsewhere. In light of recent anti-Islam, anti-EU, anti-immigrant sentiment, as well the documented failure of mass surveillance as a tool to prevent extremist attacks, we need to urgently ask the question if more surveillance is really what we want. After all, as Charles Arthur points out:

If the UK can demand access to the contents of internet accounts – even where the data is stored overseas – of people in the UK, why shouldn’t Russia demand exactly the same of Britons who happen to be in Russia? Why shouldn’t border guards in China demand access to your hard drive as you get off the plane in Shanghai? What’s to stop Iran insisting on the decryption keys to any internet service that wants to connect its citizens?

In short: just because we fancy ourselves safe under our democratic governments doesn’t mean that we are, or always will be. And, as Arthur goes on:

The current system is a mess – but making it easier for MI5 to get hold our emails won’t actually make us any safer. Better work by the intelligence agencies will.

He is right. And for better work by the intelligence agencies, encryption isn’t a problem by default. Facebook or its security settings aren’t the problem. Edward Snowden certainly hasn’t caused the problem. The problem that the sheer mass of information collected is overwhelming the agencies has been around for a while. And knee-jerk responses that aim to preserve powers of questionable effectiveness are a problem because they stand in the way of better solutions. Even members of the ISC itself have warned against using its report to justify greater surveillance powers.

When addressing these issues, governments would do well to stop exploiting “the fears and emotions surrounding [the] attack [on Lee Rigby – and other similarly emotionally charged incidents] to demand still more spying powers.” What they might want to do instead, is to start thinking about how the work of the intelligence agencies can really be improved long-term and to everyone’s benefit. To that question, expanding mass surveillance even further isn’t the answer. And it won’t make any of us any safer, either.


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