Tag Archives: terrorism

With Politicians Like These, Who Needs Terrorists?

The text on the cover says: "Love is stronger than hate."

The text on the cover says: “Love is stronger than hate.”

Last week, on the 7th of January 2015, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s office in Paris was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine featuring jokes, cartoons, reports etcetera. that is stridently anti-conformist in nature. They make fun of politics, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and all other institutions. Like all of us they have every right to freedom of expression. But alas, fundamentalists did not agree, and opted to violently attack their office in Paris with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, leaving 12 people killed and 11 wounded. This was a terrible attack, and my heart goes out to the families and their colleagues and friends who have lost their loved ones.

After the attack, there was (rightly so) worldwide condemnation and the sentence “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” became the slogan of millions. What I am afraid of however, is not the terrorists who perpetrate these attacks. What frightens me more, is the almost automatic response by politicians who immediately see reasons to implement ever more oppressive legislation, building the surveillance state. After all, the goal of terrorism is to change society by violent means. If we allow them to, the terrorists have already won. Their objective is completed by our own fear.

Hypocrites At The March

When I was watching footage of the march in Paris for freedom of expression I saw that a lot of government leaders were present, most of whom severely obstructed freedom of expression and freedom of the press in their home countries. Now they were were at the march, claiming the moral high ground and claiming to be the guardians of press freedom.

Here’s an overview of some of the leaders present at the march and what they did in relation to restricting press freedom in their own countries, courtesy of Daniel Wickham, who made this list and published it on his Twitter feed:

Politicians like the ones mentioned above, but also the likes of May (UK Home Secretary), Opstelten (the Netherlands’ Justice Minister) and many others are jumping on the bandwagon again to implement new oppressive laws limiting freedom of expression and the civil and human rights of their peoples. With leaders like these, who needs terrorists? Our leaders will happily implement legislation that will severely curtail our freedoms and civil liberties instead of handling the aftermath of tragic events like these as grown-ups. It would be better if they viewed participating in the march as a starting point to start improving the situation in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of the press at home.

The Political Consequences Of Terrorist Attacks

What frightens me is the fact that people like Andrew Parker, head of MI5, the kind of person who normally never makes headlines, is given all the space he needed to explain to us “why we need them,” to put it in the words of High Chancellor Adam Sutler, the dictator from the film “V for Vendetta,” which is set in a near-future British dystopia. UK Chancellor George Osborne immediately said in response to the piece by Andrew Parker that MI5 will get an extra £100 million in funding for combating Islamic fundamentalism. David Cameron has confirmed this.

Politicians are using the tragic events in Paris as a way to demand more surveillance powers for the intelligence community in a brazen attempt to curtail our civil liberties in a similar way to what happened after the 9/11 attacks.

All the familiar rhetoric is used again, how it’s a “terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm,” how the threat level in Britain worsened and Islamic extremist groups in Syria and Iraq are trying to attack the UK, how the intelligence community needs more money to gather intelligence on these people, how our travel movements must be severely restricted and logged, the need for increased security at border checks, a European PNR (Passenger Name Record) (which, incidentally would mean the end of Schengen, one of the core founding principles on which the EU was founded — freedom of movement). The list goes on and on.

A trend can be seen here. UK Home Secretary Theresa May wants to ban extremist speech, and ban people deemed extremist from publicly speaking at universities and other venues. The problem with that is that the definition of extremist is very vague, and certainly up for debate. Is vehemently disagreeing with the government’s current course in a non-violent way extremist? I fear that May thinks that would fit the definition. This would severely curtail freedom of speech both on the internet and in real life, since there are many people who disagree with government policies, and are able to put forward their arguments in a constructive manner.

Before we can even begin to implement laws like these we need to discuss what extremism means, what vague concepts like “national security” mean. There are no clear definitions for these terms at this point, while the legislation that is being put into place since 9/11 is using these vague notions intentionally, giving the security apparatus way too much leeway to abuse their powers as they see fit.

I read that Cameron wants to ban all encrypted communications, since these cannot be decrypted by the intelligence community. This would mean that banks, corporations and individuals would leave themselves vulnerable to all kinds of security vulnerabilities, including identity theft among others, vulnerabilities which cryptographic technologies are meant to solve.

Cryptography is the practice of techniques for secure communication in the presence of adversaries. Without cryptography, you couldn’t communicate securely with your bank, or with companies that handle your data. You also couldn’t communicate securely with various government agencies, or health care institutions, etcetera. All these institutions and corporations handle sensitive information about your life that you wouldn’t want unauthorised people to have access to.  This discussion about banning cryptography strongly reminds me of the Crypto Wars of the 1990s.

Making technologies like these illegal only serves to hurt the security of law-abiding citizens. Criminals, like the people who committed the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, wouldn’t be deterred by it. They are already breaking the law anyway, so why worry? But for people who want to comply with the law, this is a serious barrier, and restricting cryptography only hurts our societies’ security.

Norwegians’ Response to Breivik

Instead of panicking, which is what these politicians are doing right now, we should instead treat this situation with much more sanity. Look for instance to how the Norwegians have handled the massacre of 77 people in Oslo and on the Norwegian island of Utøya by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22nd, 2011.

Breivik attacked the Norwegian government district in Oslo, and then subsequently went to Utøya, where a large Labour Party gathering was taking place. He murdered 77 people in total.

The response by the Norwegians was however, very different from what you would expect had the attack taken place in the UK, the US or The Netherlands, for instance. In these countries, the reaction would be the way it is now, with the government ever limiting civil liberties in an effort to build the surveillance state, taking away our liberties in a fit of fear. The Norwegians however, urged that Norway continued its tradition of openness and tolerance. Memorial services were held, the victims were mourned, and live went on. Breivik got a fair trial and is now serving his time in prison. This is the way to deal with crises like this.

Is Mass Surveillance Effective?

The problem with more surveillance legislation is the fact that it isn’t even certain that it would work. The effectiveness of the current (already quite oppressive) surveillance legislation has never been put to the test. Never was a research published that definitively said that, yes, storing all our communications in dragnet surveillance has stopped this many terrorist attacks and is a valuable contribution to society.

In fact, even the White House has released a review of the National Security Agency’s spy programmes in December 2013, months after the first revelations by Edward Snowden, and this report offered 46 recommendations for reform. The conclusion of the report was predictable, namely that even though the surveillance programmes have gone too far, that they should stay in place. But this report has undermined the NSA’s claims that the collection of meta-data and mass surveillance on billions of people is a necessary tool to combat terrorism.

The report says on page 104, and I quote:

“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of Section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional Section 215 orders.”

And shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the existence of some of these programmes were published, former director of the NSA Keith Alexander testified to the Senate in defence of his agency’s surveillance programmes. He claimed that dozens of terrorist attacks were stopped because of the mass surveillance, both at home and abroad. This claim was also made by President Obama, who said that it was “over 50.” Often, 54 is the exact number quoted. Alexander’s claim was challenged by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), who said that they “had not seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any valuable intelligence.” The claim that the warrant-less global dragnet surveillance has stopped anywhere near that number of terrorist attacks is questionable to say the least, and much more likely entirely false.

More oppressive dragnet surveillance measures aren’t helping with making the intelligence community any more efficient at their job. In fact, the more intelligence gets scooped up in these dragnet surveillance programmes, the less likely it becomes that a terror plot is discovered before it occurs, so that these may be stopped in time. More data needs to be analysed, and there’s only so much automatic algorithms can do when tasked with filtering out the non-important stuff. In the end, the intel needs to be assessed by analysts in order to determine their value and if necessary act upon it. There is also the problem with false positives, as people get automatically flagged because their behaviour fits certain patterns programmed into the filtering software. This may lead to all sorts of consequences for the people involved, despite the fact that they have broken no laws.

Politicians can be a far greater danger to society than a bunch of Islamic terrorists. Because unlike the terrorists, politicians have the power to enact and change legislation, both for better and for worse. When we are being governed by fear, the terrorists have already won.

The objective of terrorism is not the act itself. It is to try and change society by violent means. If we allow them to change it, by implementing ever more oppressive mass surveillance legislation (in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), or legislation that restricts the principles of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, enshrined in Article 10 of the ECHR, freedom of assembly and association enshrined in Article 11, or of freedom of movement which is one of the basic tenets on which the European Union was founded, the terrorists have already won.

Let’s use our brains and think before we act.

Security Measures against Terrorism: Costs v. Benefits

Note: This article is also available in Portuguese, translated by Anders Bateva.

Plasterk in Tweede KamerA few days ago, the Dutch Home Office Minister Ronald Plasterk said in a debate in parliament that he’s apparently OK with the American intelligence community, the NSA among others, to spy on the Netherlands. His reasoning is flawed from the get-go, and went somewhat like this (paraphrased): “I don’t want to say that Dutch citizens may never be spied upon. Because that Dutch citizen can also be a stone-cold terrorist. And it’s good if that terrorist can be found.” Here’s the full quote (in Dutch):

“Ik wil dan ook wel oppassen om in het woordgebruik bijvoorbeeld te zeggen: ja maar, er mag nooit naar Nederlandse burgers worden gekeken. Want die Nederlandse burger kan natuurlijk een keiharde terrorist zijn, en dan zijn we toch blij dat die op een gegeven moment ergens op de rader verschijnt, en dat moet natuurlijk volgens de wetten gebeuren, maar dat die op de radar verschijnt, en dat er vervolgens actie kan worden ondernomen.”

Plasterk later denied saying that, but he did in fact say this during the debate. More evidence can be found here.

Is No Price Too High For Security?

Benjamin Franklin once said something like “They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This quote has been used a lot, but it is applicable here. The question we need to answer is the following: When do security measures stop benefiting the greater good, and infringe on our privacy and liberty, which are values that used to define our very societies? When does the price we have to pay for that little extra security becomes too great? Combating terrorism certainly seems like a very noble goal, and while I do agree that there are some people out there who aim to change our societal structures through violent methods (although one has to note that one man’s terrorist is the other man’s freedom fighter; the definition of the term is a bit in the eye of the beholder), there does come a point where the price we have to pay for a little increase in security becomes too great, compared to the potential benefits.

Terrorism is Really Rare

Chances Terrorist Attack One thing we have to understand is that acts of terrorism on the scale of 9/11 or the London public transport bombings on 7/7, awful as they may be, are still very rare indeed. Extremely rare in fact. Even President Obama has said so, although he does have an interesting choice of words. The chance that you’re involved in a traffic accident tomorrow are several orders of magnitude greater than the chance that the next aircraft you are in will end up in a building instead of on the runway. This is also valid for other acts of terrorism, not just the ones involving aircraft. And even the TSA agrees now that terrorists are not plotting against aviation. So why do we still have to cope with all the draconian security measures then, if it’s clear that it didn’t help one bit? You see the same thing happening with CCTV cameras. Governments and corporations put these things up everywhere, but there isn’t the tiniest shred of evidence that these cameras actually help prevent crimes. But still the TSA and their European counterparts continue to tell people to leave their water bottles and baby food and butter knifes at the checkpoint. Bruce Schneier put a lot of thought into this problem, and he said that we currently try to protect against specific movie-like terrorist plots, instead of doing a thorough risk analysis and protect ourselves with more generic measures that may actually work against multiple types of plots. Terrorists bring down aircraft, so we increase security at airports; terrorists used box cutters, so we ban box cutters; someone brought a bomb on board hidden in his shoe, so we’re telling people to take their shoes off. These are all very specific actions taken against these types of movie-like plots. The security measures taken here are way too specific to work against anything other than the movie plot attack. As soon as terrorists modify their plan just one tiny bit, the entire strategy to combat them becomes ineffective. Humans are unfortunately excruciatingly bad at evaluating risks, and if you give them a very specific, movie-like terrorist plot, they will rate the risk from that much higher than it is in reality, because of the specificity of the plot. We humans have evolutionary been conditioned to consider specific threats a greater risk than a more general threat. On Wired, Schneier states:

If you’re a higher-order primate living in the jungle and you’re attacked by a lion, it makes sense that you develop a lifelong fear of lions, or at least fear lions more than another animal you haven’t personally been attacked by.

We are conditioned to think: it happened once, so it’s likely that it’ll happen again. And you see politicians using that knowledge to their advantage. It is insightful to consider that most measures we’ve currently taken against terrorism, would never even be considered had the events of 9/11 not happened.

Moving On..

With regard to the comments made by Mr. Plasterk: I think a lot of politicians still think that the United States is one of the ‘good guys’, when there’s more and more evidence coming out that politically speaking, it is not our ally, and certainly not our friend. They serve their own self-interests, just like any other nation on earth, and it’s important to never forget that. I even heard some politicians say that we should demand that Dutch citizens shall be treated the same as Americans under US law. It is laughable to think that the Americans across the pond will say: “Oh no! We angered the Dutch! Quickly change our laws to treat them the same as we treat Americans before they start re-colonizing New York!” At most, what these politicians will get is a nice letter from the US Embassy in which they solemnly promise that it will never happen again, meanwhile not changing their laws or practices in the US. And the NSA happily continues to trample upon their NATO allies’ rights. And our politicians are apparently very happy to accept that. We have to reconsider our position and alliances after the numerous disclosures of classified documents by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. For what good is a friend who spies on you behind your back? President Roussef of Brazil has taken decisive action by severing ties with the United States and even building new fibre optic cable connections that circumvent United States territory. Where is the outrage in Dutch society? Here, AMS-IX (the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, the second-largest Internet exchange in the world), sets up shop in the US, making it subject to the PATRIOT Act. Have these people been living under a rock these past months? Or are there other, commercial interests at play here? We need to start demanding answers while at the same time strengthening our own privacy protections. Privacy is a human right, nothing more, nothing less. We need to start using it, or risk losing it.