Almost as soon as last Friday’s attacks on Paris had reached their conclusion, the French security services began trying to figure out how those responsible could have been stopped. Did they send messages discussing their plans? Were they already being watched by the state?
In the UK, attention has turned to the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, the latest incarnation of a set of new powers nicknamed the “Snooper’s Charter”. The draft bill was released in early November, provoking some controversy about the powers it would grant the intelligence services. It will now be examined by a committee of representatives from both the Commons and the Lords.
Voices from the right have called for the bill to be pushed through more quickly. David Cameron has said that the government should “look at [its] timetable”, while an editorial in the Sun called for state snooping powers to be “doubled, not diminished”. In a discussion in parliament on 16 November, Theresa May countered that the bill should be subject to “proper scrutiny” before passing into law.
But would the powers laid out in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill have stopped the Paris attacks? The signs suggest not. It is still not known whether the perpetrators sent details of their intentions to Isis members outside France, or how they communicated with each other – though the Belgian federal home affairs minister, Jan Jambon, recently claimed that a growing number of Isis members are contacting each other using chat networks on PlayStations.
Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, communications service providers (which, in the case of PlayStation, would be Sony) will be required to collect and store messages for up to a year. If served with a warrant, the company would be required to pass on chat histories from specific users.
This still requires security services to flag up suspects in the first place. There is no pattern of gaming activity that would appear suspicious: users wouldn’t use their consoles to research weapons or visit jihadist chat forums. Console login details are unlikely to be linked to individuals’ phones or laptops, or even to their real identity. It is even possible that criminals could communicate using coded forms of play within the games: by spelling out words using objects included in the game, for instance.
This is precisely why terrorists use such tactics. The conversation around surveillance is particularly naive when it assumes that we can stay one step ahead of potential terrorist groups. As Shiraz Maher pointed out in these pages last week, many Isis members are now using the heavily encrypted Telegram app to communicate, just as David Cameron is belatedly panicking about the strong encryption used by Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
The technology commentator Paul Denlinger pointed out last year that the ideal is to avoid leaving a digital footprint: “Most likely [Isis is] using hand couriers, who are people known within their community by all parties. Human couriers continue to be the most secure and effective communication means.”
There is evidence that French authorities had watched the Kouachi brothers, two of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, since 2005 – yet they still failed to predict the attack or intercept relevant details. Friday’s shootings were not pre-empted by the state, despite the passing in July of legislation granting the French security services surveillance powers that were deemed “excessively broad” by the UN and are far greater than those contained in the Investigatory Powers Bill.
This is not to suggest that there is no point trying to intercept and monitor terrorist activity but it does imply that David Cameron’s focus on state surveillance is misplaced. We are likely to trail one step behind Isis on digital security; as a result, the only people truly affected by increased state surveillance will be ordinary citizens. Even if we do flag and monitor potential terrorists, we may not have the resources to stop them.
Perhaps the Prime Minister should be paying attention to a different plot – one that did not succeed. In Bavaria, a man was arrested by police after a routine search days before the Paris attacks. His vehicle was full of firearms, grenades and explosives. He has since been linked to the shootings in Paris.
Spending cuts brought in under this government could result in 22,000 fewer police officers on the streets. Let’s hope that, despite this, local forces will be able to afford the kind of on-the-ground policing that could prevent future attacks. If not, at least Cameron will have access to a year’s worth of chat histories.