Mass surveillance is not the answer
Governments have been quick to use the terror attacks in Paris to argue for greater mass surveillance despite a lack of evidence that it works. Just days after the attacks, the director of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, rekindled the US debate over mass surveillance. He said the attacks were a “wake-up call” and called for a review of the country’s regulation of data interception. Brennan went on to denounce what he termed “hand-wringing” over the US security services’ ability to spy on its citizens. He did not elaborate on why greater surveillance powers may have prevented the attack in France or why the US situation is comparable.
The Former National Security Agency and CIA director, Michael Hayden, also said: “In the wake of Paris, a big stack of metadata doesn’t seem to be the scariest thing in the room”. His suggestion of the banality of metadata collection is in sharp contrast to what he told an audience during a debate at John Hopkins University, USA, in 2014: “We kill people based on metadata”.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also used the attacks as an opportunity to push his government’s surveillance agenda. Just three days after the shootings, he suggested expediting Britain’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill through Parliament and therefore reducing the level of public and parliamentary scrutiny. As proposed, the Bill will extend the British security services’ interception capabilities enormously and would allow the police to access people’s metadata without any judicial oversight or even a warrant.
Links between greater surveillance and security are unfounded, particularly as there was no intelligence gathering failure in France. The deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Jameel Jaffer, said: “there’s no evidence the French lacked some kind of surveillance authority that would have made a difference”. Additionally, a French counter-terrorism expert told the press: “our intelligence is actually pretty good, but our ability to act on it is limited by the sheer numbers”.
A number of intelligence agency around the world, including those of France, Germany and the US, already had evidence that Paris was an imminent target of the Islamic State or Daesh. The security services of both France and Belgium knew of several of the attackers, particularly as several of the men lived only hundreds of metres from the Paris main police station and in an area known as a haven for extremists. US security services even singled out the mastermind of the attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, as a particular threat to France.
Discovering that the attackers were known threats is not unique to the recent attacks in Paris. Se-
Armed police at St Pancras Station, London, in wake of Paris attacks. Photo: EPA