The minions of the national security surveillance state are predictably using the Paris terrorist murders to argue that privacy is a luxury that liberal democracies cannot afford. As Defense One reports, "The enemies of encryption have their knives drawn."
As an example, Defense One notes that CIA Director John Brennan said yesterday, "I do hope this will be a wakeup call particularly in areas of Europe." Before succumbing to this spook scaremongering recall that the federal government's own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency charged by Congress with advising the president on the privacy and civil liberties repercussions relating to fighting terrorism, issued a post-Snowden-surveillance-revelations report that concluded:
"We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation."
Not a single instance. During a time of crisis it is vital to keep in mind the PCLOB's other warning:
"Permitting the government to routinely collect the calling records of the entire nation fundamentally shifts the balance of power between the state and its citizens," the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board warned in its report. "While the danger of abuse may seem remote, given historical abuse of personal information by the government during the twentieth century, the risk is more than merely theoretical."
I assert again that secret government – certainly not terrorism – is always the chief threat to liberty. It also bears noting that in May the French government awarded its spy and police agencies sweeping new surveillance powers and they obviously failed to prevent these horrific attacks.
Defense One is also reporting that warhawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is reviving the really bad idea that the government require private companies to install "backdoors" in their communications software:
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, also made the case for law enforcement backdoors into encrypted devices, despite concerns from encryption experts that such back doors would weaken the encryption and could be exploited by criminals. "It's time we had another key that would be kept safe and only revealed by means of a court order. Right now, the recruitment, training, and equipping can happen in secure sites and we can not let that continue to happen, with all due respect to my friends in Silicon Valley," McCain said, on the same show.
A similar liberty-destroying idea was soundly rejected in a 2013 report by President Obama's handpicked Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. As I reported:
The fifth salient recommendation [of the RGICT) is that the NSA be forbidden to engineer vulnerabilities into the encryption algorithms that guard global commerce and that the agency be precluded from demanding changes in any product to ease the clandestine collection of information. Such activities have already undermined trust in the security of telecommunications and data storage around the globe.
At the Cato Institute's conference on NSA surveillance in October, Harvard Berkman Center fellow Bruce Schneier noted that a "secure Internet is in everyone's interests. We are all better off if no one can do this kind of bulk surveillance. Fundamentally, security is more important than surveillance." At the same conference, Matt Blaze, an Internet security professor at the University of Pennsylvania, observed that maintaining vulnerabilities in computer code doesn't just make it easier for the NSA to spy; it makes it easier for the Chinese, Russians, and Iranians to spy, and for Internet criminals to steal data and cause other havoc.
Finally, as I reported back in 2014, the RGICT warned:
If there is another significant terrorist attack, the report's authors warn, "many Americans, in the fear and heat of the moment, might support new restrictions on civil liberties and privacy." They add, "The powerful existing and potential capabilities of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies might be unleashed without adequate controls. Once unleashed, it could be difficult to roll back these sacrifices of freedom."
Sadly, just a predicted. Now is the time for citizens to defend liberty from the dual threats of terrorism and of pervasive surveillance.