Paris damages the case for mass surveillance…

Predictably, the horrific killings in Paris have led to a number of calls for more, and more invasive powers of surveillance for the police and the intelligence services. This always happens after an atrocity – the horrendous murder of Lee Rigby, for example – but as then, these calls are misguided at best. In particular, what happened in Paris doesn’t make the case for mass surveillance stronger – if anything, it damages that case. A huge amount has been written about this already, and I don’t want to go over the same material yet again, but there are a few key points to bear in mind.

Firstly, that France already has extensive surveillance powers. It already has ID cards. It already has more privacy invasions than we in the UK have – and we have a huge amount. That surveillance, those privacy invasions, didn’t stop the shooting in Paris. Why, therefore, would we believe that similar powers would work better in the UK? Because our police and intelligence services are somehow ‘better’ than the French? To say that’s an unconvincing argument is to put it mildly.

Secondly, and more importantly, it looks almost certain that the perpetrators of the atrocity were already known to the police and intelligence services. They had been identified, and noted. Just as the murderers of Lee Rigby had been identified. And the men accused of the Boston bombings. The intelligence services already knew who they were – so to suggest that more dragnet-style mass surveillance would have helped prevent the atrocity would simply be wrong. Let me say it again. We knew who they were. We didn’t need big-data-style mass surveillance to find them – and that’s supposed to be the point of mass surveillance, insofar as mass surveillance has a point.

Most privacy advocates such as myself are not, despite what the supporters of mass surveillance might suggest, ‘anti-police’ or ‘anti-intelligence services’. Most that I know are very much in favour of the police. None of us like terrorism – and to someone like me, a free-speech advocate, an amateur satirist and even occasional cartoonist – this particular attack hits home very sharply. When we say we oppose mass surveillance, amongst other things it’s because we don’t think it’s likely to work – and in particular, that we think other things are likely to work better.  And the evidence, such as it is, seems to support that. Police and intelligence services do not have unlimited resources – far from it in this age of austerity. If the resources – time, money, energy, intelligence – currently put into mass surveillance systems that are unproven, have huge and damaging side-effect, and are even potentially counterproductive, were, instead, devoted to a more intelligent, targeted approach, it might even be that counterterrorism is more effective. We should be looking for new ways, not going down paths that are costly in both financial and human terms.

The fundamental problem is that terrorism, by its very nature, is hard to deal with. That’s something we have to face up to – and not try to look for silver bullets. No amount of technology, no level of surveillance, will solve that fundamental problem. We shouldn’t pretend that it can.

32 thoughts on “Paris damages the case for mass surveillance…

  1. There is a lot least one revealing statement herein by Stella Rimington about Western Intelligence’s failure to reveal how technically backward and behind the West was the Soviet Union.

    Either they were incompetent (which hardly inspires confidence given the size of their Cold War opponent) or knew the real situation, but it was decided that revealing what they knew would result in cuts in both their budgets and those of the military generally. It was in their vested interest to exaggerate threats.

  2. Paul,

    It may be predictable for some people to ask for more powers. It’s equally predictable that some will react by by arguing that this proves existing surveillance powers can never help stop any atrocity (or investigate it after the fact).

    You say

    We knew who they were. We didn’t need big-data-style mass surveillance to find them

    but how do you know how the French authorities knew who they were? Isn’t it possible they’re known because of exactly the sort of surveillance powers you’d like abandoned?

    People like me who basically support GCHQ and what you call “mass surveillance” (which is not the same as saying I agree with every single detail of current law or policy, or support every call for further powers – I have sometimes opposed such calls) are not looking for any “silver bullet”, and do not think one can be found. With respect, it’s you who seems to expect surveillance must be a magic bullet and foolproof shield against terrorism, if it has any use at all.

    I think what you call “mass surveillance” is one important, non-foolproof tool in the fight against terror – both in terms of prevention and in terms of subsequent investigation and prosecution, which also matters. I don’t want it abandoned just because known suspects can’t be followed, watched and listened to 24/7 and therefore not all terror attacks can be prevented.

    1. In this case, we know that one of the brothers was found entirely conventionally – he was arrested in 2005 trying to travel to Syria, and this seems to be a familiar pattern. Conventional – or rather updated, conventional approaches do seem to work insofar as working is possible. I take your point over the silver bullet – but to listen to some politicians and journalists, we *could* stop terrorism if only we had the powers. I don’t believe that.

      1. Mass surveillance will result in information overload and, given the resources needed to handle that, might actually mean less effective anti-terrorism activity due to a diversion of resources to try and make sense of the overload.

        Unless of course, 50% of us are going to be employed by GCHQ and we will need to ensure that the 50% of those employed there are not terrorists themselves before they are taken on!

      2. What prompted the arrest? Sorry, Paul – I’m open to being convinced, but I don’t think you’ve excluded the possibility of what you call “mass surveillance” as being involved in identifying him as a person of interest. if you have a link you think proves it, I’d like to read it.

        It seems at least as common, to me, for people to imagine the fight against terrorism would be entirely unaffected if what you call “mass surveillance” were ended tomorrow.

      3. As far as I can tell, it was connections with existing – and known -terrorist groups. This was 2005, when mass surveillancd capabilities were far lower… but i’ll concede that it is indeed *comceivable* that mass surveillance was involved – but to say I’m unconvinced would be putting it mildly, particularly when other similar stories are considered. Whenever similar claims have been made in the past, they’ve unravelled rapidly. And I’m not arguing mass surveillance should be ended tomorrow – but that resources should be diverted elsewhere in a new strategic approach. Of course it needs to be phased, rather than immediate.

      4. Also, I should say that the title of my post is deliberate, but also very much my opinion. I beliefe that the events in Paris damage the case for mass surveillance. They don’t destroy the case – but they add to the case against mass surveillance. I want to see more evidence in favour of mass surveillance before we accept that it’s a good idea. That evidence, so far, is distinctly lacking. We’re asked to accept it largely on trust. Frankly, right now, for me that isn’t enough. I suspect that for you, it may be.

      5. @John D Turner,

        How do you know what there’ll be “overload”? And what sense does it make to say it “might” mean less effective anti-terrorism, so let’s just abandon it?

        I’m not sure even 5% of the population of Cheltenham works for GCHQ.

  3. Ana,

    The cause of terrorism is not the lack of surveillence at all, and more of it will not stop terrorism.

    I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that a lack of surveillance is “the cause of terrorism”.

    And I don’t think you can possibly know that more surveillance would not help stop terrorism, or that less of it wouldn’t make terrorism easier to commit, or get away with.

  4. Paul,

    Sorry to go on, but you also say:

    already has more privacy invasions than we in the UK have

    which I’m not going to dispute; having lived in France briefly and spent a short time with lawyers there, my general impression is that there is a greater amount of civil liberty in Britain than in France.

    So I wonder why we’re often given the impression by campaigners that Britain’s the most intrusive “surveillance society” among western democracies. Am I being unfair?

      1. I’m not arguing with your characterisation of France, Paul.

        But which is it? Does France prove more “mass surveillance” won’t help Britain, because France has gone further down that route than Britain? Or is Britain the leading “surveillance society”? Both can’t be right.

      2. Each leads in different ways, for me – but i don’t see this as a key point: I could have phrased my piece differently, with the same underlying point.

  5. The authorities resort to blanket sweeping surveillance; then fail to handle identified individuals. They did fail to apply simple approaches and methods of empowering societies. You don’t see any Mosque or Muslim groups speak about terrorist because they afraid bugged or blamed. They see as dangerous territory for normal people. There is sense of let James Bond do the job within Muslim society because our government doesn’t empower or encourage them. The gov rather think that only guys at GCHQ can defeat terrorism.It’s multidimensional task that requires honest approach. As bacteria develops drug resistance types terrorists will try to outdo intelligence agencies then sometimes succeed in their criminal acts. If known terrorists evade authority then commit kill, what do we expect from remote n sophisticated ones?

  6. I 100% agree with Paul.

    One of the brothers left his IDcard in the car they used.
    French authority confirmed the terrorists were known by the police (before they were cough).
    People expressing support for terror, verbal and/or by actions, becomes quickly “person of interest” for the police…

    I would kindly like to ask Carl Gardner what he believes the newly suggestions for mass surveillance brings related to prevention of terror?
    Where is the limit for how fare a government can go, without any kind of suspicion of wrongdoings, to intrude citizens private and intimate sphere?
    (And does Gardner understand the threads with BigData?)

    Separation of powers is vital to maintain a modern, liberal democratic society – it is the citizens who shall oversee the state, and not the state which shall oversee citizens.

    A voice on french media, expressed anger over why not all of the “persons of interest” were held in prison. Well, that is a thought, but up to know we do not punish people for potential crime they might comit in the future.

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