I am in Brussels. And I am scared. Very scared… of the probable security backlash following last month’s terrorist attacks.
I don’t want to live in a city where everyone is viewed with suspicion by the authorities, because it won’t stop there. Because suspicion is infectious. When misappropriated and misdirected, that sort of suspicion can very easily become racism and prejudice—two of the key ingredients that led the awful attacks on the morning of Tuesday, March 22.
ISIL is not only fighting a cultural war; it's fighting a media one. For that reason maybe we should really stop talking about it as though it was a “real” war. As though there were valiant warriors on both sides. As though those responsible for the Brussels bombings are anything more than common murderers, plain and simple. Truthfully, the only community the Brussels attackers belong to now is the criminal community.
It is high time to strip terrorists of their mystique. We must stop playing their game. Statistically, I am not any less safe today than I was on the Monday before the attacks. Yet if many politicians have their way, my activities will be monitored a great deal more.
Two days after the attacks, EU ministers met in Brussels at an emergency justice and home affairs council, and predictably demanded more access to our Internet histories, more powers to track people, and more ways to break into our private communications.
The European People's Party has reportedly said it wants personal data on everyone who takes a train to be stored. Meanwhile, a so-called Passenger Name Record is in the works for all airline passengers.
And, even before the terrorist attacks, Belgium officials were mulling the expansion of the country's data collecting and storing laws. Never mind that the European Court of Justice, and the Belgian Constitutional Court have ruled that data retention is illegal. My adopted country also plans new surveillance legislation that would allow intelligence agencies more freedom to eavesdrop on cross-border communications: “Hello Mum, nice to talk to you… and everyone else listening in.”
Turning leaky tap on secure apps
On a European level, the ePrivacy Directive is up for review this year, and there will be no prizes for predicting that secure online communications services, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, and even Viber, Skype, and Facebook Messenger could all be in the cross-hairs. Will there be anywhere left if you want to have a private conversation online?
Like anyone, I believe those who carried out the attacks in Brussels should be caught and brought to justice, but not at any cost. And certainly not at the cost to ordinary citizens’ freedom, and way of life.
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That is even supposing these new measures would work to prevent future attacks: I’ve seen no evidence—and I've asked the question among many Brussels-based folk—to support that view. Does taking a plane or a train make you more likely to be a terrorist—sorry—murderer? Are overwhelmed police forces really able to cope with combing through that amount of data? Experience suggests that having access to the travel histories of everyone would have made little difference in the Brussels case. Europe’s security problem is not with too little information, but with too little sharing, and understanding of that information.
Just like physical security, increased surveillance powers generally don’t make us any safer. The reality is that when we see souped-up security guards everywhere we don’t feel more secure. Often the effect is the opposite. Security theatre isn’t even effective as good theatre.
I completely understand the desire to do something—anything!—after such a horrible atrocity. One of the most difficult emotions I had to cope with, as the horror unfolded, was feeling useless. But sometimes, especially when we are shocked, doing nothing is the better option.
Kneejerk reactions are almost always the most ill-thought out ones. Four day before the attacks, the European Data Protection Supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, put out a press release saying that legislative proposals to fight cross-border crime including terrorism were too rushed and too weak to do the job, anyway. Now, post-March 22, hasty decisions are even more likely.
That I am appalled at some of the reaction to the attacks is not a surprise. My view has always been that more “security,” more surveillance, and more data retention, not only won't work, but will undermine our rights. My opinion on this point is not new. What is new is that it has been tested. As someone who walks the streets past Maelbeek metro station every day, I feel I have a valid insight on what will and won't make me feel safe, and how much of my privacy I am willing to give up for it.
Existing Belgian powers didn't prevent these attacks
Here in Belgium, investigators already have the power to get a court order on telecoms operators to track a suspect’s SIM card down to the nearest phone tower location, as they did with Salah Abdeslam, the man suspected of being behind the Paris attacks. Of course terrorists must be expected to keep their phone with them at all times. Imagine if they learned sophisticated counter-intelligence techniques like, say, leaving it at home!
Yes, I have sat down and cried at what has happened in my city. I swallowed fear as I anxiously waited to hear from loved ones. I felt powerless, and grateful to strangers for support in the wake of the attacks. Today, I feel angry that cynical opportunists will twist this to their own ends.
In my ideal world there would be a moratorium on new security or surveillance laws for at least three months following a terror atrocity. That won’t happen because, as bad as knee-jerk reactions are, there are others who will have waited for just this sort of event to push their own agenda. That, as much as everything else that has happened in the days since the attacks on Brussels, makes me want to weep.
Predictably, even those further afield had an opinion: US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said “we have to toughen our surveillance, our interception of communication.” Presumably “we” in this instance is those already with huge amounts of power, and control.
Meanwhile, would-be US president Donald Trump reportedly said he would use torture to combat terrorism. I read sensible, reasonable replies from decent people explaining why torture doesn’t work or is unreliable for gathering information. And—for a moment—this seems a reasonable conversation. Before I jolt back to myself and realise this is torture we are talking about. Surely any decent human being opposes it on principle. What point have we reached, where we are even in a position of discussing this?
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I am well aware that collecting PNR data is not comparable to torture. And I am not opposed to proportionate and specific surveillance. My opposition, on principle, is to mass unjustified collection of personal information "just in case." Just in case of what? In case we're all closet terrorists?
Predictably, Europol Director Rob Wainwright blamed encryption. He told POLITICO. “Encrypted communication via the Internet, and smartphones are a part of the problems investigators face in these instances. We have to find a more constructive legislative solution for this problem of encryption.”
Since when is encryption a problem? Encryption is what allows us to use online banking to book holidays, buy birthday presents. Using crypto tools doesn’t mean you are a terrorist. Weakening encryption will just create vulnerabilities that will be exploited by the very criminals and terrorists we want to stop. This is as good a reason as any to defend encryption.
But again I shake my head and wonder why we can’t just expect privacy on principle. I am frustrated and saddened that the default position of treating other humans as decent law-abiding folk, is changing to one where the assumption is we are all potential terrorists.
The terrorist’s weapon of choice is fear. When we fear them, they have won a battle. When we start to fear each other—the woman in a headscarf on the metro, the man with the large bag at the airport, the teenager with his hands in his pockets—they are one step closer to winning the war. Let’s not play into their hands.