10 December 2015

The Investigatory Powers Bill won’t make us safer

By Eric Lieberman

For centuries, western civilization has been admired for its democratic institutions and general respect for civil rights—and rightfully so. Western powers have cherished human rights by ensuring that the governments both honor and protect essential liberties.

But in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, many of these virtues are being questioned, and may soon be abandoned. The right to privacy, in particular, is being cast aside by leading lawmakers,  ostensibly in the name of security. In other words, core western principles are being jettisoned simply out of fear. This is a vital mistake.

Politically motivated and shortsighted measures, like the Investigatory Powers Bill in the U.K. and the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act in the U.S., are counterproductive to the foundational ideals of western democracy, and will make us less free and less safe.

In a recent article for CapX, Olivia Archdeacon argued that, while the intrusive government surveillance powers contained in the Investigatory Powers Bill are “obviously unsettling”, they are insignificant because “the government already has access to this information”. But the violations of the right to privacy that arise from pending cyber-information sharing bills are not negated by the fact that governments currently have means to collect sensitive information. On the contrary, the very existence of institutionalized, systematic data collection is itself a source of legitimate privacy concern.

The backlash from the public in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations clearly shows that the public vehemently opposes mass government surveillance, particularly when it is done without their knowledge or permission. This outrage recently led to a historic victory for American civil liberties activists.

Archdeacon attempts to validate increased government surveillance equating it with the terms and conditions agreements we have all accepted when utilizing digital products and services.

But this ignores a critical distinction between consenting to a contract, in return for the services of the provider, and the non-consensual collection of information by the government. If the public wishes to use a particular service, then it is perfectly reasonable that they accept the conditions set by the provider. But voluntarily handing over information in return for a service is completely different from the government covertly stockpiling data for its own surveillance purposes.

Sweeping legislation like CISA and the Investigatory Powers Bill, if passed, will give the government indiscriminate access to the personal data of everyone, even the disapproving, non-consenting public.

And it won’t make us safer. In her concluding sentence, Archdeacon argues that the more information the government hoards, the more difficult it will be for terrorists to carry out attacks. This is not the case.

Government surveillance has led to an unmanageable amount of data, about all aspects of people’s lives.  But it has not made us any more secure. Just like the Boston bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Paris attackers were already recognized by intelligence agencies, but this made it no easier for authorities to prevent the attack.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, the White House’s own report found that, contrary to the claims of its most ardent advocates, the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data had failed to prevent even a single terrorist attack.

Clearly the lack of successful, preemptive action does not stem from the lack of intelligence. The incessant flood of data continues to clog the U.K. and the U.S.’s intelligence network, inundating analysts with irrelevant information. Instead of creating an infinite amount of avenues for data collection, we should perfect the few effective methods of surveillance that are necessary, and not overly invasive.

Despite being overwhelmed with an endless amount of information, government intelligence agencies want even more access to data. This is merely so that they can circumvent the traditional legal processes required when obtaining suspects’ personal information. These requirements may seem onerous, but they exist to prevent abuse and protect law-abiding civilians.

Many officials have resorted to blaming encryption for the Paris attacks. CIA Chief John Brennan, for example, claimed that the terrorists utilized encrypted technology to elude intelligence agencies’ probing. But no such evidence exists. Despite careless reporting by a multitude of media outlets, the opposite appears to be true. The Paris attackers are not the terrorist masterminds that government would have you believe. Their communications were not encrypted and their detection-avoidance efforts were amateur at best.

Nonetheless, leading intelligence officials, like John Brennan, want private technology industries to create a ‘backdoor’ and only give government agencies the ‘key’. But this relies on a poor understanding of encryption technology.

Creating a ‘backdoor’ in encryption will make it inherently less secure. ‘Backdoors’ will create vulnerabilities in the software and there will be no way to ensure that it is not used by hackers—whether they be lone wolves, foreign government agents, or terrorists. The idea that the government can keep their own data, let alone someone else’s, completely secure is highly suspect, to say the least.

In times of visceral fear, many ignorant but well-meaning people are willing to give up basic freedoms for the superficial feeling of security. But it is imperative that we resist the fallacious notion that giving the government increased surveillance powers will make us safer. The evidence shows that it will not. Furthermore, it is vital that we preserve fundamental western values, like the right to privacy.

Overall, passing the Investigatory Powers Bill, or the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, would be a grave mistake, costing us our liberty, while affording us no additional security.

Eric Lieberman is a Young Voices Advocate, public policy researcher with an emphasis in technology policy, and writer based in Washington, DC.