Pendulum swings to security

Pendulum swings to security
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Europe is quickly reassessing its approach to gathering and sharing intelligence a week after terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people.

The violence appears to have tilted the balance toward security and away from privacy, reviving legislation that would expand Europe’s surveillance capabilities.

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“My sense on the ground is that people are horrified and almost overnight, the public sense is much more, ‘Those bastards, whatever needs to be done to stop that has to be done,’ ” said Emily Taylor, an associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House. “That’s a moment where the hawkish approach can carry the day.”

The shift mirrors a similar hardening of attitudes in the United States, where lawmakers have rushed to support stricter security controls and greater access to civilian data in response to the attacks.

Privacy is considered a fundamental right under the EU Charter, and public revulsion in Europe with U.S. surveillance programs unveiled by Edward Snowden shifted sentiment solidly in favor of personal liberties.

There was anger at U.S. companies from both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe, when it emerged that the private sector had cooperated with the government.

Tech companies are watching the new debate with some nervousness, as the pressure could lead to tougher calls for them to open their databases to law enforcement. 

“The French are ready to limit their freedom for more security,” proclaimed the front page of the French paper Le Figaro on Wednesday, hinting at the public mood. 

Privacy advocates on both sides of the Atlantic have decried the reactions as knee-jerk — a “wretched yet predictable ritual” that won’t stop future attacks, the New York Times editorial board warned.

The French government has hardened its security stance, posting heavily armed law enforcement patrols and voting to extend its state of emergency for a further three months. The extension allows the use of aggressive emergency powers used to conduct hundreds of police raids without a warrant.

“The state of emergency, it’s true, justifies certain temporary restrictions on liberties,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told The New York Times. “But resorting to this, it’s to give us every chance to fully restore these liberties.”

France already has some of the most flexible policies for intelligence agencies in the EU, setting it apart from other member states — such as Germany — where the protection of citizens’ privacy often trumps security concerns.

Following the January attacks on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the French parliament passed a bill requiring Internet service providers to allow government authorities to monitor online traffic.

A more recent bill approved by the parliament and pending in the country’s constitutional court would allow the government to monitor traffic between France and other countries.

Critics slammed the measures as a “Patriot Act a la Francaise,” comparing it to a controversial U.S. bill passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks broadening surveillance powers.

The fight for the ideal balance between safety and civil liberties is being played out across the EU.

In the United Kingdom, some lawmakers have called for a pending intelligence bill to be fast-tracked through the legislative process in response to the attacks.

The Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed a “Snooper’s Charter” by critics, would require Internet service providers to maintain records of users’ browsing activity for 12 months.

Civil liberties advocates have pushed back against the various pieces of legislation expanding the amount of data on EU citizens that governments are able to collect, arguing that it undermines important privacy rights without improving security in a meaningful way.

“Paris has some of the most intrusive monitoring and yet those attacks were not foiled, they weren’t predicted and they weren’t stopped. So, it doesn’t work,” said Taylor.

The attacks have also rekindled a debate over encryption technology that has echoes of a bitter fight already convulsing the United States.

In the EU as in the U.S., law enforcement and intelligence officials argue that unbreakable cryptography shields terrorists from critical surveillance, while tech advocates insist that weakening encryption introduces dire security risks and impinges on privacy rights.

The investigatory powers bill that U.K. politicians toyed with fast-tracking includes a provision that would require tech companies to ensure that authorities could access encrypted data when needed.

But reports in the French press have begun to suggest that the devices used by the attackers weren’t encrypted. This hasn’t stemmed the debate in the U.S., but it has kept the rhetoric in the EU fairly muted, observers say.

Some suggest that any backlash that pushes Europe further from its privacy ideals will happen in the courts.

In the years since Snowden revealed the breadth of U.S. intelligence gathering, European judges have been aggressive in ruling to protect privacy rights.

Following the Paris attacks, Taylor says, “I would expect the pendulum to swing back a bit” in terms of how judges rule on cases that involve personal data.

Some say the attacks are still too raw to foresee what new surveillance legislation will come to fruition — but that there’s little doubt such proposals are coming.

“With these repeated attacks, there is a big push for more measures in security, so we could expect in the next few months new measures,” said Estelle Masse, a European policy analyst for the digital rights organization Access Now.

Taylor called the shift away from privacy in favor of stricter security “an unstoppable tide” that is “nibbling away at civil liberties.”

“There’s an awful lot of fear and that justifies the erosion of liberties that define our society,” she said. “I’m very concerned.”