Paul Bernal's Blog

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.