It has been a tragic few months on both sides of the Atlantic. April saw the Boston bombings, the first domestic attack on the US since 9/11. The UK meanwhile was shocked by last month’s sickening murder of a British soldier in Woolwich. Both nations showed grief and outrage, but there are more similarities than that. The aftermath of both attacks saw the intelligence services scrutinised; it has emerged that the US may have been aware of the plotters, while one of those responsible for the Woolwich attack was known to MI5 as they in fact had tried to recruit him. Questions levied against the intelligence services are therefore unsurprising and rather common wherever attacks such as these occur. Despite them foiling numerous terrorist plots, they are always pinned up and blamed for those that go under the radar.
It is in this environment where issues of surveillance have begun to manifest. After Woolwich, some argued for the implementation of the so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, believing that, for the UK to be safer, intelligence services must have access to more information. This is a position endorsed by the US hierarchy, indeed the exposure by Edward Snowden of the US’s PRISM system indicates the amount of access their government already has, with him claiming not only that they have a wide ability to eavesdrop on telephone conversations, but also that US citizens’ online activities are closely monitored through providers of internet data such as Google and Microsoft. They have denied their involvement in this, as has GCHQ, and how truthful Snowden’s claims are will probably be never fully revealed. If they are true though, the monitoring power would be unprecedented. One can see why intelligence services would want more though. Recent attacks show individuals are increasingly becoming radicalised through online rather than face to face exchanges. Whereas wide terror cells have gaps that can be exploited, attacks like those in Boston and Woolwich were small scale involving only a few people with access to websites that offer practical as well as the ideological means to commit terror. Also, just like the rest of us, terrorists are communicating through this medium more than ever before, so intelligence services can argue that if people want them to foil plots that endanger their lives, this form of intrusion is a price they’ll have to pay.
An amount of surveillance may be inevitable, in the same way as anyone wishing to board a plane has to now accept they’re going to be searched thoroughly. But security and surveillance must be balanced with individual liberty. The UK and the US are free nations and part of that means citizens must have, to a certain extent, the freedom to do what they want and speak to who they want, without it being under the gaze of the state’s all seeing eye. It is all very well saying that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, but is it really ok that the rights of many are quashed because of a risk that still remains slim? PRISM may not be able to know your name, but it can build a detailed profile about you and your contacts and therefore much of which defines us as humans. Perhaps we should be less cavalier about espousing every thought of ours onto the internet, but privacy remains an intrinsic right that is being lost by governments, creating an increasing imbalance between security and freedom.
This is why there should be no knee jerk reaction to intelligence powers after these attacks, and also why Snowden was right. Being a whistleblower takes guts, but his conviction for it was that he felt the debate over counter-terrorist surveillance needed to be a public one. And he is right about this. For too long it has been behind the scenes, with the public kept in the dark about surveillance powers that were both covert and increasing. There’s no doubt that terrorists use the internet to connect with like minded people. Intelligence services need therefore some methods to prevent this and to detain those who may wish to harm the public. This ensures people retain the freedom to live, but there must be a line in the sand, a point of no return. For while no one wants to see repeats of the tragic events of Boston or Woolwich, ultimately the UK and the US are democratic societies. That means people must still be able to be free from continuous government surveillance and to know how much information they can freely acquire. Citizens should therefore try and retain this and support those like Snowden, but attempts are increasingly cancelled out by governments fearful of further attacks. It is true that greater freedoms could make these countries more vulnerable, but successfully fighting terrorism only by denying that which defines these societies is no win at all.
By Daniel Kibble