Civil Liberties

What's a Terrorist Attack If Not An Excuse for More Domestic Spying?

Driven by a need to appear proactive, and a taste for power, government officials once again exploit a murderous incident to increase their authority over us.


Scott Beale/Foter

Following on last week's terrorist attacks in France, the British government has dusted off a long-sought "snooper's charter"—better known as the Data Communications Bill—to ease the power of officials to track people's private communications. 

"It is too soon to say for certain, but it is highly probable that communications data was used in the Paris attacks to locate the suspects and establish the links between the two attacks," Home Secretary Theresa May told Parliament. "Quite simply, if we want the police and the security services to protect the public and save lives, they need this capability.

You get that? There's no evidence that the bill would have prevented the Charlie Hebdo attack, but that incident is why you should pass the bill.

Prime Minister David Cameron even says that messaging services that can't be intercepted should be banned.

Using the latest outrage to inject new life into old security-state legislation isn't a British specialty. When the Patriot Act was introduced in 2001, then-Senator Joseph Biden boasted, "I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill." This is a game in which politicians everywhere can participate.

Never mind that, as Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out in November, "there is very little evidence that the Internet is making terrorism easier to do." But pretending otherwise, and passing legislation that empowers security services, lets government officials accumulate power and give the appearance of doing something when the public is frightened. Added Bailey:

As [David Benson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago] argues, exaggerating the Internet's usefulness to terrorism has "egregious costs." Some officials, for example, have been calling for a "kill switch" that would allow the government to shut down the Internet in an emergency. Noting how much Americans depend upon the Net for commerce, communication, medical care, and so forth, Benson points out that "It is difficult to imagine a terrorist attack being as costly as turning off the Internet would be."

Terrorism also gives officials an excuse to tighten censorship—especially in jurisdictions, including many democratic countries in Europe, where the whole free speech thing has relatively shallow roots.

So get ready for the ride. Driven by a need to appear proactive, and a preexisting taste for accumulating power, government officials once again exploit a murderous incident to increase their authority over us.

Which escalates the ongoing cold war between people who want to be left alone, and the governments that seek to control them.