Note to Self: the shape of things to come

This week, something on the future of this blog.

I started Notes from Self in July 2013 – 1.5 years ago – and I have grown quite fond of my little blog.

Back in 2013, I was dismayed with the situation surrounding Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations in general and annoyed with an open letter by MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry in particular. I needed a place to post a response to an open letter to Edward Snowden she had read out during one of her programmes, asking him to “come on home”. My response was my first blog post. Since then, I have tried my best to post once a week. Except on certain occasions, for example when I was traveling or during the holidays, I stuck with that goal.

Quite a lot has happened since then, both in terms of my chosen subject matter – which is mostly surveillance, civil rights, free speech, and security – and for me personally. A little less than a year after starting this blog, I started writing for a couple of online magazines and I am now relatively frequently publishing articles on politics, digital and civil rights, surveillance and so on. I am also doing a lot of reviewing – mostly film at the moment. I am greatly enjoying it all but as I am doing it next to my day job, I have decided that I am going to need to scale back a little on the blogging side. The goal of blogging weekly – and posting on Sundays – derived as much from there being lots of things I wanted to write about and from wanting a weekly writing exercise. To keep me in good shape so to speak. I now feel that I am in a position where I am getting regular exercise through my other writing, so rather than continue with my weekly schedule on here, I have decided to turn Notes From Self into a slower blog. The new goal being to blog less regularly (i.e. get rid of the every-Sunday rule) whenever there is something I really want to discuss or during such weeks when I am getting no other “exercise”.

This week I have had an article published (in German) on David Cameron’s suggestion that banning encryption might be something worth thinking about. I have also written three reviews. So I think I have earned a break 😛 I am quite looking forward to reading this feature in the New Yorker about why adding to the existing “haystack” of mass surveillance data might not be the best way of keeping us safe and to catching up with news on journalist Barret Brown (sentenced to five years this week) and the revelation that GCHQ has been capturing emails from journalists.

I shall write again soon.

Perspective please! Continuing to defend civil liberties in the wake of Charlie Hebdo isn’t delusional

Over the past 1.5-odd years since Edward Snowden first leaked his trove of classified NSA-documents to journalists, there have always been moments when it felt necessary to repeat – again and again and again – things that had already been said, argued, clarified on multiple occasions. That’s because, at more or less regular intervals, someone will insist on repeating the same under-informed claims. Usually with some name-calling thrown in (traitor, fool, hypocrite, arrogant narcissist). It may not seem surprising that this has happened once again in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

So this week, we’re deluded fools. To be more precise: those of us who may have liberal left-of-centre values, who believe that there is much to be said in the defence of rights and civil liberties such as that for private communications. Or even just the right to be free of suspicion if we have done nothing wrong. Those of us who believe that people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning actually did us a favour by letting us know about things that are being done in our name without our consent.

By contrast, according to some, the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo prove that Snowden in particular put us all in danger. And that those of us who think otherwise are deluded fools. At least that’s what Max Hastings calls us in the Daily Fail Mail. He also derisively calls us civil libertarians and imbeciles for praising people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and, more importantly, for resisting mass surveillance. As such, Hastings expresses like other “authoritarian voices from the right and left… much exasperation with liberals, as if the only of aims liberals were to support the terrorists and impede the security agencies.”

Not so. Obviously. But then, to Hastings, anyone who is justifiably wary of giving the spooks even more powers than they already have must seem perhaps unnecessarily paranoid. Whereas Hastings himself is justifiably paranoid of course. That’s because the terrorists are out to get us and, in light of that, Hastings cannot, “for the life of” him “imagine what harm can result from MI5 accessing the phone calls, bank accounts, emails of you, me or any other law-abiding citizen.”

 

Abuse

Mr Hastings is of course entitled to his opinion. But I, for one, do not want any of my personal accounts accessed by anyone, thank you very much. That’s not because I have anything to hide but because I object on principle to any of us being turned into suspects by default (and UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg actually says the same thing).

What is more, documents provided by Edward Snowden have alerted us to abuse of such powers of surveillance. As an example, take the story about GCHQ storing naked pictures of people from their webcams. Also take into consideration that

surveillance powers, upgraded in the wake of previous terror attacks, enabled the Metropolitan police to put under close surveillance six journalists who were loosely thought to be investigating government and corporate abuse. About 2,000 legitimate, mainstream journalists are said to be on the police database.

This worries journalists in the UK so much (although perhaps not Mr Hastings) that more than 100 British newspaper editors have recently called on David Cameron to tighten snooping rules.

If government surveillance of journalists who are legitimately carrying out their “mainstream” work isn’t a “real assault[…] on our freedom”, then what is? Yes, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was, too, but that doesn’t mean that we do well to respond to that with an assault on our freedom of our own, for example with the frankly chilling kind of legislation David Cameron has suggested he will push through when re-elected.

Mr Hastings argues that abuse of surveillance powers limited to “a few mavericks” and that therefore there would be no harm in extending those powers to include free access to the content of our private communication. Yet “the failure to release the Chilcott report into the Iraq war, the prevarication that has taken place over the allegations of British involvement in torture of terror suspects” and the fact that “that no specific individual within NSA has been said to be culpable [for mass surveillance]” suggest that abuse isn’t limited to the indiscretions of a few mavericks but that is it institutional.

 

No safer

What is more, it still hasn’t been conclusively proven that the extent of these powers makes us any safer, let alone that extending them even further will. Even MI5 chief Andrew Parker, who again called for an extension of surveillance authorities this week, admits that “we cannot hope to stop everything.” In fact, Max Hastings himself admits that it would be impossible to eliminate the havoc wreaked by terrorists. Charlie Hebdo – far from proof that Snowden has made the world a less safe place – has shown us clearly that this is true. This is a sad fact, yes, but it isn’t justification to further extend powers that are at best ineffective and at worst powerful tools open to abuse.

What is more – and this is important – MI5, GCHQ and MI6 are government organisations and while no one in their right mind believes that “the very existence of government [is] inherently wicked and threatening” (that would be daft), any authority that a democratic government gives the agencies now will still be in place under the next government and the next one after that and so on until eventually there may come a time when government may not be as benevolent as our current one is (and even that is subject to debate). In which case these powers can very quickly and very easily turn against some or all of the people they are now intended to protect. The above-cited example on the surveillance of journalists shows that this is already happening.

It is doubtful – despite claims by the Securocrats to the contrary – that Edward Snowden has “damaged the security of each and every one of us, by alerting the jihadis and Al Qaeda, our mortal enemies, to the scale and reach of electronic eavesdropping”. Apart from the fact that this kind of inflammatory rhetoric is annoying, the idea that Snowden’s revelations have alerted “our mortal enemies” to anything they didn’t already know is by no means unanimously accepted.

Hand on heart, how many of us were surprised that we were being spied on on a massive scale? “So they are spying on us. Who’s surprised?” must have been one of the most frequent reactions to Snowden’s revelations when they first started. In light of the confirmation of our own suspicions, it seems hard to believe that “the terrorists” wouldn’t have been aware of what the rest of us perfectly innocent civilians claim to have known all along. Rather, it is likely that

terrorists were well aware of electronic surveillance before…Snowden surfaced to reveal its extent.

What Snowden’s revelations really showed is that

governments had taken more than a few liberties with electronic surveillance and plainly did not have the informed consent of the electorate in this vital area of policy.

That is the important piece of information that the champions of surveillance would have us overlook – and that people like Mr Hastings seems so very happy to disregard.

Supporters of mass surveillance insist that the chances of stopping the attacks against Charlie Hebdo would have been better without Snowden’s revelations. Similarly, members of the intelligence community itself assure us that “Edward Snowden damaged security.”

Yet, without evidence, these claims, recently reiterated in the UK by Lord Evans, a former MI5 chief, and printed by – again – the Daily Mail (also responsible for journalistic gems like Sandwichgate, just to add some perspective) sound more like fear-mongering than anything else.

But then, we deluded libertarians and privacy advocates obviously fail to take into consideration when pointing this out that evidence most likely touches classified information that the agencies cannot reveal and that therefore we are no position to ask them to substantiate their claims with facts. A rather convenient dilemma.

 

Ineffective

So then let’s look at the facts that we do know which, as Henry Porter argues in the Guardian, suggest that attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo will always be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent, no matter how much we expand powers of surveillance, no matter how much we curtail our civil liberties. Porter points out correctly that

it is impossible to predict the behaviour of any number of individuals – and agency resources, even in the US, are always going to be finite.

Europol director Rob Wainwright, too, has admitted that there is no guarantee that attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo can be prevented: “No, there can’t be, otherwise what happened in Paris wouldn’t have happened.”

And even Max Hastings concedes that

logistically it is an impossible task for any intelligence agency to monitor the thousands, and even tens of thousands, of young Muslims known to have expressed an interest in violence.

(Again, beware of the fear-mongering rhetoric of tens of thousands of violent Muslims!)

In light of this, isn’t it paradox to demand even more spying powers, to accumulate even more data to sift through, to add further to a haystack in which any needle is already nigh impossible to find?

Yet, this is exactly what is being suggested by people who demand more powers for the agencies or who claim that what Edward Snowden has revealed has somehow given “the terrorists” an edge by showing them how to evade surveillance. As Henry Porter writes, Hasting’s argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, not least because “all the necessary tools were in place to track the Kouachis” (the brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo) and they still weren’t identified as a serious threat in time. Similarly, tools and information was in place – and even being used – to track the people responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, yet they were not prevented either. Neither was the murder of Lee Rigby in London. It would seem that amongst the sheer mass of data, vital clues were overlooked, vital information not shared. Yes, it would seem that because of

the massive collect-it-all, dragnet approach to intelligence implemented since 9/11… terrorist activity [has become] more difficult to spot and prevent

because relevant data is drowning in a “tsunami of non-relevant data”.

If it is impossible to monitor tens of thousands in the first place, if there is already too much information to see such attacks coming because

the decision to elevate quantity over quality did nothing to increase accuracy, unblock intelligence stovepipes or prevent terrorist attacks

then what follows is not only that whatever harm (if any) Edward Snowden could do to an already faulty system is probably rather limited, but also that there is a case to be made for targeted surveillance that is subject to strict legal controls, rather than the indiscriminate mass kind we have now.

No one,” Henry Porter writes, “wants to hamper the security services, but at the same time we must be extraordinarily careful not to harm the essence of our freedom,” not to “compromise the fundamentals of our democratic system by dishing out mass surveillance powers.

Rather than to demand more spying powers to produce even more data, perhaps we should consider concentrating our efforts on using the existing powers more efficiently.

 

Perspectives

Interestingly, the Guardian reports this week that the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London has managed to build a database with profiles “of about 700 western foreign fighters who have joined either Isis or groups such as al-Qaida’s Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front” – and all by legal means, using “information that is openly accessible to anyone” on social media, “with no hacking of accounts or even the use of fake online profiles.” What is even more interesting is that the King’s College team says that

blanket surveillance is not effective unless you have the skills to decode the information acquired.

Professor Peter Neuman, who leads the team, in fact advocates targeted surveillance “rather than reliance on mass surveillance techniques.”

I feel… the NSA… collects everything but doesn’t often have the capacity to make sense of it. We have a much more limited amount of material, but we’re able to exploit that to maximum effect.

Yes, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were terrible and inexcusable. They were frightening. But let us not lose our perspective here. Rather than to make panicked calls for more surveillance at the expense of our civil liberties, perhaps we should think about investing in a form of intelligence gathering that can actually be used to maximum effect. That has, in short, proven effective.

It is frankly paradox to argue, as Dan Hodges does in the Telegraph, that “[i]f one way of stopping obscenities like [the attacks on Charlie Hebdo] is providing the security services a bit more access to our e-mails, we must give it to them. If it means internet providers handing over their records, the records must be handed over. If it means newspapers showing restraint the next time an Edward Snowden knocks on their door, then restraint will have to be shown. Because look who came knocking at the door today.”

Frankly, this is nonsense. Because what Hodges is asking, perhaps without being quite aware that he is doing so, is not only that we add further to a vast and inefficient haystack, but also that we restrict the same press freedom that the Charlie Hebdo attacks have been understood to target. Yes, it is certainly right to be vigilant but to live in constant fear and then try to control that fear with measures that are ineffective anyway – that doesn’t sound like a sensible thing to do. That some of us have not quite despaired so much that we would agree to let that happen, does not make us delusional. But perhaps it makes us more willing to admit that

there is no easy fix – no single security mechanism, change in foreign policy or censor’s gag that will magic this problem away.

“Nothing, not even despair, justifies choosing darkness, totalitarianism and hatred” – Charlie Hebdo statement, 2006

Today I feel tired. I feel depressed and afraid.

Hari Kunzru, the Guardian, January 2015.

Over the past couple of days one topic has dominated the media. The horrific attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which 12 people were killed. As police hunted the perpetrators across Paris, the situation escalated, culminating in the breaking up by police of two sieges and a final death toll of 17.

The horrific attacks, allegedly committed by Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, two Parisian brothers with connections to radical Islamist groups, have sparked sympathy and outrage in France and elsewhere. People have rallied in support of the victims. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) has been dominating Twitter and demonstration placards for days. Sadly, the attacks have also resulted in a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment and racism. Some people have taken what has happened in Paris as an opportunity to further their own agendas, none of which have much to do with equality, liberalism, tolerance, rights or liberties.

I wasn’t sure whether to write about this, to, as Kari Kunzru puts it, “add to the pile of hopeful platitudes, lofty sentiments about liberty, calls for solidarity and compassion and moderation.”

The reason I did choose to write this is that I feel that another voice contradicting those reactions and inflammatory statements that have nothing to do with solidarity or compassion at least won’t do any harm.

It is indeed fatiguing and depressing to witness how anti-Islamists, anti-immigrationists and right-wingers in France and elsewhere (like Pegida in Germany and UKIP leader Nigel Farage in the UK) are using the attack on Charlie Hebdo to construe crimes likes this one as “proof of the significant threat posed by Islamists and the extent to which mainstream parties have tried to downplay the dangers.”

It is outrageous to instrumentalise these attacks to make political statements, as Germany’s latest “upstart party Alternative for Germany, or AfD,” is doing by saying, for example, “that immigrants should be let in based on cultural compatibility and not just economic grounds.”

However, equally depressing and dismaying are calls from members of the establishment, who may not be as easy and convenient to condemn, and who have lost no time chiming in, repeating claims that were old and worn-out before the attacks and which seem misplaced and ill-timed now.

In Germany, members of Angela Merkel’s CDU are once again calling for a review of mass data retention which was ruled unconstitutional in March 2010, irrespective of the fact that data retention in France did nothing to prevent the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

In the UK, the Sun newspaper has gone as far as to demand that our “jump[ing] up and down about civil liberties… has to stop” and that “[w]e have to recognise that the greatest civil liberty of all is staying alive.”

Meanwhile, MI5 chief Andrew Parker has “called for new powers to help fight Islamist extremism, warning of a dangerous imbalance between increasing numbers of terrorist plots against the UK and a drop in the capabilities of intelligence services to snoop on communications.” He stressed once again the “lethal threat from Islamist extremists,” claiming that “more than 20 terrorist plots [were] either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria” against western targets in the last 14 months”, four of which he said were aimed at Britain and would have “certainly” resulted in deaths. While offering no concrete evidence to substantiate these claims, he was as quick to subordinate privacy to national security: “I don’t want a situation where privacy is so… sacrosanct that terrorists can confidently operate from behind those walls without fear of detection.” Just as the Sun was quick to subordinate civil liberties to security while itself conceding that “we can never be completely safe.”

It almost seems as if in the emotional aftermath of the attacks securocrats were hoping that we forget – or were themselves forgetting – that states like the UK and the US have

cracked and tightened for a decade and a half and all we have to show for it is a bloated, unaccountable security state that is eroding the cherished freedoms we claim to be so eager to protect”

without much success in keeping us safe. More than that, it seems that we live in increasingly xenophobic societies with no more security to show for the increasing number of calls to exclude those who suffer just as much from the acts of a very few as the rest of us.

After 9/11, [d]emocratic governments lurched towards authoritarianism. Almost willingly, it seemed, governments tore up many of the central tenets of their liberties. In the more belligerent states – the US and Britain – habeas corpus, private communication, legal process and even freedom of speech were curtailed or jeopardised.

In the aftermath of the horrific incidents in Paris, it seems that some people are eager to do the same. Calls like the ones by Parker and the Sun are being echoed far and wide and with bizarre proportions. One of the most sickening came from the NY Post which demanded that “the city [of New York] should revisit its decision to dismantle the NYPD’s “Muslim Mapping” intelligence program”, claiming that “[t]he program was designed to provide exactly the kind of intelligence that would have been useful to police in Paris once they identified their three suspects in Wednesday’s terror attack.”

“Muslim Mapping”- the name itself should make us shudder, as it gives away the true purpose of such a programme: the religious profiling of a large, heterogeneous group of people who all somehow happen to identify as Muslim but who have as little in common as individuals in any other large heterogeneous group of people who just happen to identify as British or German or French. Muslims all being lumped together and, if not being held responsible, then at least placed under general suspicion because of the actions of a few – that is racism, pure and simple or perhaps the more appropriate term would be “religionism” if it existed. We saw in Germany in the 1930 and 1940s exactly where that kind of thing can lead.

In response to the attacks in France, Robert Badinter, a former French justice minister said that

[t]he attack on Charlie Hebdo “is not only a crime, it is a trap.

A trap that will cause some people to confuse a vast majority of people with a few. It is the perpetrators that are to blame here. Yet many are quick to extend the blame, or defer it to third parties. In trying to answer the question of why this was allowed to happen, they come up with the same outrageous and frankly ridiculous suggestions that have been going round for years. It is this obvious repetitiveness, this inability or perhaps refusal to stop for a moment and consider what the real causes of the problem may be – and not just the problem of terrorism but of extremism of any kind – that is so depressing. Clearly, whatever we have been trying so far to contain these threats, both of terrorism and right-wing extremism alike, has been unsuccessful. To use this attack to, once again, make the same suggestions, to blame the same people, and to further political agendas, is ignorant, thoughtless and deceitful.

And some of it is tiresome and sickening in its sheer ridiculousness. Take Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted that all Muslims “must be held responsible” for attacks like the one in Paris “until they recognise and destroy their growing jihadist cancer”. Thankfully, J.K. Rowling immediately jumped in with a quick-witted response. Or journalists in the German Rheinische Post and Bild who went so far as to suggest that Edward Snowden is somehow responsible for what happened in Paris, because his revelations revealed operative details, and because his supporters haven’t been taking seriously warnings from the securocrats that Snowden’s revelations have diminished their ability to protect us. Because we haven’t had an attack like this one in Europe the wake of Snowden, the argument goes. Because we didn’t believe in the threat.

Bluntly speaking, these claims are not only far-fetched, they are nonsense, made by people looking for someone to blame in all the wrong places.

No one disputes that there is a terror threat. We witnessed the reality of that threat in New York in 2001, in London in 2005, in Boston in 2013 and recently in Syndey and Ottawa. What we have also seen, however, is that the surveillance apparatus implemented over the past decades is ineffective. These attacks were allowed to happen in spite of it. To suggest that Edward Snowden – or by extension the people fighting to protect our civil liberties – are somehow directly responsible for what happened in Paris is to suggest that, in moments of despair, totalitarianism – a surrender of our civil liberties – is worthy of consideration. It isn’t.

As David Davis MP (UK) told Forbes:

France has got the most intrusive [surveillance laws] of any country. That hasn’t protected it.

What is more, the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo had, according to the Guardian and the Independent been on the US terrorism watchlist for years, considered either “a low risk “has-been” or no threat at all. Therein lies the problem: It is doubtful that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had the kind of cryptographic know-how to protect themselves from the surveillance apparatus, had it trained its full, substantial power on them. Had they, in short, been considered threatening enough to be worthy of such attention. The problem is not a lack of surveillance, it is a lack of effectiveness, a lack of judgement. In the vast haystack created by mass data retention, the needle, it seems, is easily lost. To instrumentalise attacks like this one to demand greater powers of surveillance is disingenuous. It is also in bad taste.

There can never be any excuse for heinous crimes like the one committed against Charlie Hebdo. However, as Jakob Augstein argues in Germany’s Der Spiegel, if we allow the horror at these attacks to overwhelm us, if we allow our values, our rights and liberties to be lost in the face of it, terrorism will truly triumph. The recent CIA torture report stands as a reminder of that. Politicians, citizens, law enforcement professionals, journalists – none of us must be “goad[ed]… to illiberal actions”. As Simon Jenkins writes:

Only weakened and failing states treat these crimes as acts of war…summoning up ever darker arts of civil control, now even the crudities of revived torture.

And only weakened and failing societies and individuals treat these crimes as a justification to blame and exclude others.

Some Muslims are Islamist terrorists but that cannot be construed to mean that all Muslims should be barred from our countries. Some people are trying to do us harm, conducting their communications through secret channels but that cannot be construed to mean that everyone has to be surveilled. The actions of a few should never be taken as justification for actions against a majority of people who have nothing in common with those perpetrating acts of crime and terror. Here is one thing most of us have in common: we are peaceful people trying to live our lives as best we can. We have not been convicted of any crime. Hence, we should not be made into suspects. Attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo will not be prevented by lumping any of us in together, no matter who is doing the lumping, to what end or at whose expense. We must take care not to be conned into believing that if only we exclude enough people, if only we wall ourselves off enough, if only we sacrifice enough of our rights, our liberties and liberalism, we will be safe.

Amongst other things, the fearless editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo relentlessly supported free speech, promoting

freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.

They were irreverent of anyone acting in opposition to these values. They strove to make us “laugh and think”,

laugh at the extremists — every extremist… extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.

Likewise, we cannot, we must, not accept that any extremist – religious or otherwise – uses this tragedy to further their agenda and poison our thinking.