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.

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