‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety‘
Following the recent events in France (which were terrible, although we think that at least some headline space should also have been given to the Boko Harem atrocities in Nigeria), it comes as no surprise that national governments have jumped at the opportunity to use the tragedies as an excuse to justify greater surveillance powers, and to impose more restrictions on their citizens’ freedoms, despite the fact that no amount of additional surveillance data would have made a shred of difference to the outcome in Paris.
Leading the charge is UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has vowed that if he wins this year’s general election, his government will introduce ‘comprehensive’ legislation to ensure there is no ‘safe space’ for terrorists to communicate over the internet,
‘The powers that I believe we need, whether on communications data or on the content of communications, I am very comfortable that those are absolutely right for a modern, liberal democracy.. I will make sure that it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other… That is the key principle: do we allow safe spaces for them to talk to each other? I say no, we don’t, and we should legislate accordingly.’
In particular, Cameron has his sights set on chat apps such as WhatsApp which use strong end-to-end encryption to protect users’ online communications, and his comments are being widely interrupted to mean that he plans to ban such apps, and launch an attack on encryption in general.
As others have observed, this attack on free speech is all the more ironic because the Charlie Hebdo staff died precisely for their insistence on defending free speech. Ah well.
Needless to say, human and digital rights campaigners are alarmed, and have rushed to put forward good, sane reasons why any such move on Cameron’s part would both morally repugnant, and utterly bonkers.
For a start, the biggest problem that surveillance agencies have is that they are already swamped by information, and sorting through the terabytes of data collected daily to find anything meaningful is already a task akin finding a well hidden needle in a haystack. Collecting even more data will simply compound this problem, and make actually make anti-terrorist agencies’ job harder.
What surveillance agencies should be looking for is more effective and sophisticated methods of analyzing the oceans of data they already collect, rather than using the recent tragedy as a cheap excuse to extend their already bloated surveillance powers ever further. If we live in a society where the actions of a very few individuals can terrify the majority into surrendering their hard won freedoms to an ever more power hungry an unrepresentative government, then the terrorists have already won.
‘I would rather die standing than live on my knees.’
Stéphane Charbonnier, editor at Charlie Hebdo and first victim to be killed in the attack on its office in Paris.
The only thing that will be achieved is placing even more power in the hands of a government that has shown time and again that it simply cannot be trusted. Never was a truer or more perspicacious comment ever made than that of Lord Acton’s;
‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’
It should also be remembered that the issue really at stake is not surveillance per se, but democracy and free speech. When someone is looking over your shoulder, it inhibits you, leads to self-censorship, and makes you less willing to speak out and oppose the status quo. The well-timed release this week of writers’ advocacy organization PEN America, ‘Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers’ found, according to the New York Times, that,
‘A significant majority [of writers] said they were deeply concerned with government surveillance, with many reporting that they have avoided, or have considered avoiding, controversial topics in their work or in personal communications as a result.’
On a more practical note, Guardian editor James Ball argues that strong encryption is the backbone of a successful internet economy – an essential prerequisite for any successful online business.
Where Cameron to actually succeed in requiring that all encryption have backdoors built in (theoretically only available to UK authorities, but which in practice would make all businesses more vulnerable to criminal hackers), the damage to the UKs economy (which is very reliant on technology) would be disastrous.
Foreign companies (and their investment) would flee UK shore, and UK companies would find customers wary of compromised products, and leave them in droves in much the same way that NSA tampering with US companies technology has cost (and continues to cost) the US economy billions of dollars.)
Unfortunately, while Cameron is leading the charge, it is almost certain that other governments will follow suit in demands to wreck privacy and security on the internet…