Spain is fast becoming one of the most draconian governments in the so-called ‘free world’. The newly passed Public Security Law, which aims to criminalize public protest, has been greeted with outrage by human rights campaigners, and has been described by Amnesty International in the most damning terms,
‘With threats of fines or threats of being beaten, the government is trying to stigmatise and criminalise people who are just practising their rights.’
On 16 December, in a large-scale operation, police raided fourteen houses and social centers in Barcelona, Sabadell, Manresa, and Madrid, claiming ‘national interest’ as the reason to seize books, leaflets and computers, and to arrest eleven people accused of ‘incorporation, promotion, management, and membership of a terrorist organisation.’
Four of these have since been released, but a remaining seven remain in prison awaiting trial on charges for which the basis appears very unclear. It is presumed they relate to the destruction of ATM machines during the anti-austerity protests in Barcelona in 2012 and 2013, but this is unconfirmed as presiding Judge Gomez Bermudez has refused to make the official police report public.
Instead, he justified the continued detention of the activists on grounds that they ‘used emails with extreme security measures, such as the RISE UP server’. They are also accused of being in possession of book called ‘Against Democracy’, and of having ‘internal organizational and bureaucratic structures.’ None of these things, it should be stressed, is in any way criminal.
We have looked at Riseup.net before. It is a privacy focused email service based in Seattle, and is well known among activist circles for its support of libertarian courses. In a blog post entitled ‘Security is not a crime,’ the service has denounced the arrests,
‘[They] speak of terrorism without specifying concrete criminal acts, or concrete individualized facts attributed to each of them. When challenged on this, Judge Bermúdez responded: “I am not investigating specific acts, I am investigating the organization, and the threat they might pose in the future”; making this yet another case of apparently preventative arrests.’
Riseup also strongly criticises how the use of secure email can be cited as evidence of terrorism,
‘We reject this Kafka-esque criminalization of social movements, and the ludicrous and extremely alarming implication that protecting one’s internet privacy is tantamount to terrorism. Riseup, like any other email provider, has an obligation to protect the privacy of its users. Many of the “extreme security measures” used by Riseup are common best practices for online security and are also used by providers such as hotmail, GMail or Facebook. However, unlike these providers, Riseup is not willing to allow illegal backdoors or sell our users’ data to third parties.’
It also notes that,
‘The European Parliament’s report on the US NSA surveillance program states that “privacy is not a luxury right, but the foundation stone of a free and democratic society”. Recent revelations about the extent to which States violate everyone’s right to privacy show that everything that can be spied upon will be spied upon. Furthermore, we know that criminalizing people for using privacy tools also has a chilling effect on everybody, and human-rights defenders, journalists, and activists, in particular. Giving up your basic right to privacy for fear of being flagged as a terrorist is unacceptable.’
This is a view supported by New York-based civil liberties group Access, whose advocacy director Josh Levy explained that regardless of whether the arrestees were involved in any criminal activity (which seems doubtful), it is very dangerous to associate the use of encryption and other privacy measures as being inherently associated with criminal activity,
‘Whether or not they were doing illegal activity, what email service they use shouldn’t be one of the determining factors in whether they’re arrested. Given that this particular email service is used by activists around the world, I don’t think it’s much of a leap to say that this shows authorities elsewhere are more actively monitoring people who make the choice to use a secure email service.’
It is unfortunately true that taking active measures to protest your privacy (and this includes using VPN) can have the opposite of the desired effect, and attract unwelcome attention from government agencies. However, the more of us who have nothing to hide, but nevertheless but do not believe the government has the right to invade every aspect of our digital lives, and who therefore encrypt everything we do online, the more difficult the task is for authoritarian government agencies who use ever-more Orwellian ‘anti-terrorism’ laws to target activists and stifle legitimate political dissent.