After Friday’s attacks on Paris, the French security services began trying to figure out whether – and how – those responsible could have been stopped. Did the perpetrators send messages containing their plans? Were they already being watched by the state?
In the UK, eyes have understandably turned to the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the latest incarnation of a proposed law nicknamed the “Snooper’s Charter”, which is currently being scrutinised by various committees. In the wake of Friday’s attacks, David Cameron has said the government should “look at the timetable” of the bill, while a leader in the Sun has called for security services’ snooping powers to be “doubled, not diminished”.
But would the powers laid out in the Investigatory Powers Bill have stopped the Paris attacks? The signs suggest not. It’s still not known whether the attackers sent details of the attack to one another or back to other Isis members or how they communicated, but Belgian federal home affairs minister Jan Jambon confirmed recently that a growing number of Isis members are using PlayStations to communicate.
Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, communication services providers (which in the case of PlayStation communications would be Sony) would be required to collect and store message details for up to a year. If served with a warrant, the company would be required to pass on chat histories from specific users.
Yet even if they had done so, there’s little that would have marked out the attackers from other, non-threatening users. There is no terrorist profile on a games console – users wouldn’t use their consoles to research weapons or visit chatrooms, and their login details are unlikely to be linked to other communication devices, or even to their real identities. It’s even possible that attackers could communicate via coded forms of play within the games themselves – spelling out words using onscreen characters, for example. This type of communication would be near-impossible to detect or understand.
Of course, this is precisely why the attackers would have used these tactics in the first place. The conversation around surveillance is particularly naïve when it assumes we can stay a step ahead of terrorist groups. As Shiraz Maher pointed out in these pages last week, many Isis members are now using heavily encrypted app Telegram to communicate, just as David Cameron is belatedly panicking about the strong encryption used by Facebook Messenger or messaging app WhatsApp.
And that’s if they use digital communication at all. Paul Denlinger, a technology commentator, pointed out last year on Quora that Isis no doubt know that the ideal is to avoid traceable communication altogether: “Most likely [Isis] are 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 in time of warfare.” The Paris attackers could well have operated autonomously, with no communication back to Isis strongholds.
This doesn’t mean there’s no point trying to intercept and monitor terrorist communications. But it does imply that Cameron’s focus on state surveillance is misplaced. We’re likely to trail one step behind Isis on digital communications and security, which means the only people really affected by increased state surveillance are ordinary citizens.
Perhaps Cameron should be paying attention to a different attack – one that never happened. In Germany last week, a man was arrested by police while driving a vehicle filled with firearms, grenades and explosives. He has since been linked to the Paris attacks.
Huge police spending cuts brought in under Cameron could see 22,000 fewer police officers on UK streets over this parliament. Let’s hope that despite this, they’ll be able to afford the kind of on-the-ground coverage that could prevent future attacks. If not, at least Cameron will have access to their chat histories.
Update 17/11: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that claims that a PS4 was found in raids in Belgium were made in error. The claims originally appeared in a Forbes story.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror