We can't let governments use ISIS and Paris attacks as excuses to increase surveillance


The tragic events in France have, almost inevitably, led to renewed calls for increased surveillance of the internet. This cannot be allowed to happen; terrorism cannot be used as an excuse to infringe upon the privacy of millions of innocent internet users.

We have groups such as Anonymous taking a vigilante stance in a bid to drive ISIS from the internet, but governments have leapt on the massacres as a justification for additional snooping powers. This smacks very much of being a knee jerk reaction, and there is a very real danger that rushed legislation will cause greater harm than good.


Mass online surveillance is never right. We have already seen the NSA and GCHQ sucking up more information than they are able to process. It's a sign of governmental panic that rather than trying to come up with a meaningful, workable solution to terrorism (like, oh I don’t know... maybe not bombing people perhaps) those in power would rather chuck a load of money at projects that indiscriminately gather data in the blind hope that something useful will turn up.

There are those who say that 'if it saves just one life, it's worth doing' -- but this is a weak, sentimental argument. These are the same people who suggest that privacy is a privilege and not a right, that only people with something to hide are opposed to surveillance. This is simply not the case at all. The right to privacy is just that: a right. It's not something one has to earn, and it's not something that should be lost until someone steps out of line. By all means, apply for warrants to tap the phone lines of individuals, to hack into their email accounts if there is reasonable evidence of wrongdoing or plans for evil. But the wholesale dredging of everyone's data and activity is simply not on.

This is something that seems to have been forgotten.

Governments have embarked on a PR campaign of epic proportions, using scare tactics to convince a pliable public that their privacy is ripe for invasion. Throw in the word 'terrorists', 'ISIS', and 'Islam' from time to time, and the misinformed, the right wing, the redneck and the stupid will lap up whatever scare story is fed to them. The 'war on terror' is absolutely meaningless, but it has severe ramifications for the normal, every man and woman.

To be told that anything you do online will be spied up, will be used to build up a picture of you, may be used against you -- this goes beyond Orwellian. The internet is being transformed into a western dictatorship where the views and concerns of the privileged white man are put before everything else. We're meant to forget that bombing raids are usually little more than land-grabs, or bids to control oil reserves. The civilian cost of the war on terror is swept under the carpet. Until it happens closer to home that is.

Of course, the terrible loss of life and the horrific injuries suffered by those in France is an atrocity. But things like that and much worse are happening all of the time around the world -- when innocent civilians are killed, do you think it matters to those left behind whether it was caused by a religious fundamentalist suicide bomber, or a US bomb dropping on a hospital? Death is death. First world, western lives matter no more than others.

It would be underhand to use France as an excuse to fast track new surveillance laws. Governments have already shown that they have little understanding of the internet and how (or indeed if) to police it. Are we to believe that decisions made in haste in a desperate attempt to appear to be doing something will not be regretted for years to come?

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, London Mayor Boris Johnson says:

Yes, of course the police and the security services are doing an amazing job -- with the resources they have -- in monitoring the thousands of potential suspects (perhaps 3,000-4,000), some of them clearly more dangerous than others. They foil all sorts of plots, half-baked or otherwise. They make arrests with great frequency. But it is plainly no use hoping that the problem of Daesh-inspired terrorism is going away.

The key word here is 'potential'. With mass surveillance, we are all potential suspects -- every one of us. What happened to the idea of the presumption of innocence? While there is a lot to be said in favor of preventative policing, the human cost in terms of erosion of rights and invasion of privacy have to be weighed up.

Referring to the people behind the Parisian attacks, Johnson goes on to say:

First of all we need to catch the bastards before they strike; and I am afraid that I have less and less sympathy with those who oppose the new surveillance powers that the government would like to give the security services.

To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me. It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police. I want these people properly spied on, properly watched -- and I bet you do, too.

This is heart-string tugging of the highest order and arguably an overly-emotional response to the situation at hand. It gets more worrying, though. According to Johnson, "it is not enough just to spy on them". He says "we need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa". Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds very much like a call to limit freedom of speech. That in turn sounds very much like a dictatorship to me. Privacy and freedom of speech are cornerstones of democracy; we should not be willing to give them up, nor take them away from others -- even if we vehemently disagree with what they have to say.

There is an unpleasant air of machismo online these days. Everything is turned into a battle, and Johnson says:

These people avowedly want to destroy us, and in those circumstances no military option can be off the table. This is a fight we will one day inevitably win -- because in the end our view of the human spirit is vastly more attractive and realistic than theirs. But we won’t win if we don't fight back.

This overly masculine 'we're stronger than you', 'we're right and you're wrong' attitude is most unhelpful and it's something that too many politicians are guilty of. In addition to a show of military strength, UK Prime Minister David Cameron plans to increase surveillance and intelligence staffing and budgets. Fighting is not the answer -- there are too many innocent victims. Creating a surveillance state is not the answer -- there are too many innocent people being spied upon. The tragedy in France simply must not be used as a catalyst for bringing in more spying powers; people's lives are worth more than that.

Photo credit: Stacey Newman / Shutterstock

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