Updated: January 21, 2015. Details below.
In light of the recent massacre at the Paris headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, many have turned their focus on how such tragedies can be prevented in the future. Inevitably, many European leaders are calling for expansive new surveillance powers to help them fight terrorism.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to revive legislation that bans apps and communication systems (email) that allow users to encrypt communication. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called for stronger surveillance of the internet and social media.
UPDATE: The French government announced that as part of the response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the surveillance divisions would add 3,000 new workers, and draft legislation stripping rights of citizenship from those who were affiliated with terrorist groups would be introduced in March.
The Italian government is seeking additional power to monitor the internet and create a “black list” of individuals who pose a security threat. Immediately following the march in support of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, 12 European Ministers issued a letter calling for major ISPs to more swiftly report and remove content that “aims to incite hatred and terror.”
While some might view these proposals as a sincere attempt to fight terrorism, a closer examination reveals a darker truth. These proposals are cynical power grabs, hostile to privacy and free speech, and should be rejected.
Here are 4 Alarming Ways Europe’s Surveillance Plan Should Scare You:
1) The proposed surveillance powers eviscerate the right to free speech.
“We must respond to this exceptional situation with exceptional measures.” – French Prime Minister Manuel Valls
The legislation being sought as part of the European Patriot Act would, in combination with existing laws, serve as an outright attack on free speech. The proposals place a heavy burden on ISPs to block and remove content at the government’s instruction, with little transparency. They also ban encrypted apps, such as those essential to the recent Hong Kong democracy protests.
How many of these leaders marching for free speech
recently proposed laws curtailing free speech?
“Mass surveillance doesn’t only infringe on our privacy, but also our ability to speak freely.” – Jillian York, EFF
There is an incredible amount of irony that an attack on free speech would result in the restricting of free speech. Or it’s exactly what we should have expected. Compare the reaction to the 9/11 attacks, widely understood to be an attack on our concept of constitutional liberty, which resulted in reduction of constitutionally protected rights.
Although most will point to a loss of privacy, rather than free speech. However, they cannot be separated. As a recent study shows, writers become hesitant to write about dangerous topics under the threat of government surveillance. When citizens fear to write about their government, we have lost the essential freedoms that these security measures claim to protect.
2) The proposed surveillance powers make you more vulnerable to hackers.
British Prime Minister David Cameron will push for a ban on systems and apps that utilize end-to-end encryption if Conservative party wins reelection. The clear result of any such law would be that apps like SnapChat and WhatsApp, which rely on encrypted communication, would need to be dramatically modified to be used legally.
“In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which… [the government] cannot read?” – British Prime Minister David Cameron
PM Cameron’s position is that reduced encryption is essential for security, but any “backdoor” for government can also be exploited by hackers. In fact, in a report published by the Guardian, the U.S. government warned Cameron that it was the lack of encryption that was the greatest threat to personal, business and government systems.
By making end-to-end encryption illegal, Cameron’s proposal actually exposes all citizens to significantly greater risk. In exchange for…
3) There’s no evidence that the added surveillance even works.
Notable of all the proposals currently being discussed, what is lacking is an assessment of their effectiveness. In fact, at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack, France already had some of the most stringent surveillance laws in Europe. They had plenty of information on the attackers themselves, and were fully aware that the attackers had become radicalized.
So why push for new laws? Could it be an attempt to prevent any serious investigation into the failures of the system that was already in place? Would a public investigation reveal the failures or embarrassing realities behind the surveillance system? Or maybe some question about how much money is being handed to defense contractors might come up?
Even if the proposals aren’t attempted misdirection, why would we rush through major new surveillance laws without taking the time to make sure they’re effective?
British, French and American intelligence agencies routinely claim that their efforts have been successful. Yet those claims are just as routinely short on details and proof. Britain’s Domestic Intelligence chief recently reported that three attacks had been prevented in recent “months,” providing no other detail. How severe would they have been? “Death would certainly have resulted otherwise,” he said.
Penetrating specificity when you’re asking for such a powerful tool. One that certainly would never be used wrongly…
4) Existing surveillance laws are regularly abused.
Where were you at 10:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2014? Dinner with family or friends? Church? Home, asleep, with images of sugar plums dancing in your head?
Or were you watching the news? Because that’s when the NSA decided to dump the records of 12 years of internal audits of their surveillance program. It was the proverbial dirty laundry that Edward Snowden didn’t have. All those times when NSA operatives had used their tools to spy on girlfriends, ex-spouses, or family members.
That’s just childish. But when the misconduct happens under color of actual law enforcement? How about when the FBI and NSA spied on the legal and constitutionally protected activities of the Occupy movement? How about the fact that Britain’s version of the NSA, the GCHQ, was snooping on the email of some of the most respected news organizations in the world? That’s right, for no apparent reason, either. Well, one reason:
The GCHQ actually considered “investigative journalists” to be a threat to national security on the exact same level as “terrorists” and “hackers.” If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, nothing will. From the same Ars Technica article:
“The Guardian quoted one [GCHQ] document as saying that ‘journalists and reporters representing all types of news media represent a potential threat to security,’ adding that ‘of specific concern are ‘investigative journalists’ who specialize in defense-related exposés either for profit or what they deem to be of the public interest.'”
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