Law in the Internet Society

Counter-terrorism and Mass surveillance: the convenient deal.

-- By JulienMaudet - 09 Dec 2016

The deviations of the State of Emergency in France

After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the French president François Hollande declared the State of Emergency, which has since then always been re-conducted by the National Assembly. This exceptional measure was originally established to gain efficiency in the investigations and to better protect the population. Yet it may have been overused by law enforcement officials. In an article published in February 2016 by the NGO Human Rights Watch, the journalist Izza Leghtas states that ’Police officers have used their new powers due to the state of emergency in an abusive, discriminatory and unjustified manner’. As an example, many environment activists were assigned to residence prior to the COP21 that took place in Paris in November 2015. While officials argued that it was a necessary measure in order to ensure the security of the event, many journalists from Le Point, Le Figaro or Le Monde signaled these measures as a symbol of the deviation of the state of emergency.

The overall acceptance of measures motivated by Counter-terrorism

The former situation was an example of how counter terrorism and homeland security can be used by governments in order to achieve parallel goals. When it comes to give counter-terrorism as a pretext to develop internal mass surveillance tools, the phenomenon is actually even more perverse because it is backed up by the majority. CBS News conducted a poll on the acceptance of video scrutiny in April 2002 and some of their results are extremely insightful. In order to prevent potential terrorist attacks, 77% of the surveyed people approved the installation of surveillance cameras in public places, as they believed it would have a direct impact on terrorist attacks. But when these surveillance cameras were presented as a way to film people so as to reduce crime, only 49% approved it. What does it mean? Although figures show that more ‘usual’ crimes kill much more people than terrorism, the population is so frightened by terrorism that they would accept an infringement of their privacy with much fewer resistance.

Mass surveillance isn’t the solution to counter terrorism

Counter-terrorism thus tends to be used as a pretext to develop mass surveillance tools. Governments promote mass surveillance based on an assumption according to which the more data is gathered, the more terrorist attacks will be anticipated and dismantled. There are actually two obstacles to this shining statement. The first one is that technology is not yet capable of crawling and analyzing such amount of data. As exposed in an article from the New York Times published in Nov. 2015, most of the people who conducted the Paris attacks were already listed by intelligence officials in France and Belgium. But overwhelmed by the amount of data, they were incapable of further investigating on these people. The french internal intelligence agency, the DGSI, has signed a contract last week with the data mining company Palantir stating that it was the only company able to scale up their surveillance capacities. However, it is unlikely to enable the DGSI to anticipate terrorist attacks.

Indeed, improving the technology is far from being enough if the final goal is to prevent terrorist attacks. The issue of a terrorist attack is so specific that such anticipation can’t happen online without the human input from field analysts and specialists. In his book Thinking Like a Terrorist : Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent, Michael German, a former FBI agent who went undercover in white supremacist groups, explains how digital and online surveillance are unefficient and misleaded in their attempts to predict radicalization and attacks. Big data technology could be used in the following way : One can investigate a posteriori on a person when they have deliberately committed a terrorist action. Agents could then backtrack the successions of actions, meetings and activities of this person in order to find potential patterns in their behavior, thanks to large and accessible databases. Using the detected pattern, one could then try to find other individuals who are involved in a similar pattern and start investigating on them. Yet this has never been effective. The simple reason is that there are no typical behaviors in becoming a terrorist, no recipe, no curriculum. Furthermore, how would a machine make a difference between an individual who is curious about ISIS and wonders how to make a bomb and an actual terrorist ? The machine would put red flags on tens of thousands of individuals and they couldn’t all be further investigated.

At the time Osama Bin Laden were still alive, Cory Doctorow rather rounded what I consider as the actual situation, in his statement: “Funny, for all surveillance, Osama bin Laden is still free and we're not. Guess who's winning the 'war on terror'?”

Why is the discussion about "terrorism" in particular, unless in order to confuse. The State's interest in the suppression of all crime is uniform, whatever crime may be defined to be. There is no relevance to the particulars unless precisely to eliminate the awareness of generalities that is necessary for successful democratic self-government. Why not try a draft in which the proposition, "counter-terrorism" is replaced by the proposition "policing and order enforcement"? What happens to the rest of the thought process involved?


Webs Webs

r3 - 12 Feb 2017 - 20:19:17 - EbenMoglen
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