Technology and tragedy: How the government uses terrorism to justify surveillance

Can we trust that new security measures are anti-terrorist and not anti-democracy?

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The first headline seemed like a joke. “Google, the terrorists’ friend” shouted an all-caps Daily Mail headline, just two days after the Westminster terror attack that left five dead and 50 injured. The paper was arguing that Google’s search engine directed people to “terrorist manuals”, but the phrasing was so ridiculous that it seemed like satire. Yet it wasn’t. Nor was it alone. “What side are you on, WhatsApp?” yelled the Sun three days later, after it emerged that Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker, was active on the messaging app moments before the massacre.

Faced with these headlines, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, decided to make some of her own. Speaking on the The Andrew Marr Show four days after the attack, Rudd condemned WhatsApp’s encryption practices – known as end-to-end encryption (E2EE) – as “completely unacceptable”. Because of E2EE, which allows only the sender and recipient of a message to see its contents, it is impossible to know what Masood wrote in his last moments. Justifying her demand that the government should be allowed access to all of its citizen’s communications, Rudd said: “There should be no place for terrorists to hide.”

Leaving aside the ins and keep-outs of E2EE, it cannot be denied that Rudd is arguing for a surveillance state. Or rather, she is arguing for complete compliance with the British surveillance state that already exists. After the Investigatory Powers Act was passed last year, we now live in a country where 48 government bodies – including the Food Standards Agency and Department for Work and Pensions – can view a record of the websites you’ve visited in the past year. If the Digital Economy Bill is passed without amendments later in the year, the government will require your identity in order for you to access online pornography. All our surveillance state needs now is for technology companies to comply.

This explains the sudden moral panic around tech and terrorism. This March, YouTube came under fire for failing to remove extremist videos, and the Daily Mail came dangerously close to arguing that our free access to information should be curbed in its headline condemning Google. Now, because of Masood’s unread WhatsApp message, the government is twisting a recent and raw tragedy for its own ends.

What’s worse, it knows how to manipulate us into going along with it. “We need to remove everybody’s curtains so we can look through the terrorists’ windows,” it says. When you argue back, security and privacy are presented as an incompatible binary. “Well, you have nothing to hide, do you? Don’t you want to stop terrorists?”

Though a simplistic curtain analogy arguably suffices, it is more important than ever to know the facts of modern technology. Rudd embarrassed herself on Marr by claiming that experts who “understand the necessary hashtags” could prevent the spread of terrorism online, proving that she had not been briefed on the reality of the situation. So: what is it?

At present, E2EE ensures that no one can access your WhatsApp messages except you and those you communicate with. Rudd wants the government to have access to these messages through a “back door” in the encryption. Yet this would leave messages vulnerable to hackers and cannot be selectively applied, so it would affect us all. When Rudd says that there should be nowhere for terrorists to hide, she is also saying that there should be nowhere for you to hide, either.

But you have nothing to hide, right? The beauty of the moral panic is that it makes its opponents immediately complicit. Why would you care if Theresa May checks your chat to find out what time you’re meeting at Wetherspoons? Why not let her, if it will
stop terrorists?

You should care precisely because these proposed measures are disproportionate. Though one death from terrorism is one death too many, only 1.4 deaths a year are caused by terrorism in the UK. You are more likely to be killed by a cow or a vending machine. Why, then, should every British citizen’s right to privacy be curtailed? Why should we spend billions of pounds a year on counterterrorism measures? Why not ban vending machines?

Beyond this, a back door into WhatsApp would also be ineffective. Does Rudd imagine terrorists won’t simply use another messaging app with E2EE? If she bans E2EE outright, does she think the terrorists won’t figure out how to encrypt their own messages? Even a ten-year-old can make up a secret language when she doesn’t want her teacher to read the notes she’s passing in class.

Can we even trust that these measures are anti-terrorist and not anti-democracy? In the US, the FBI recently let a child pornographer go free because it did not want to disclose to a court the surveillance methods used to catch him. When we use moral issues such as terrorism and child pornography to push through extreme laws, we are clouded to the real reasons why surveillance is installed. If the child pornographer has gone free, what was the reason for the surveillance state?

There is also an element of the government shifting the blame. It has historically been the justice system’s responsibility to curtail hate speech. Why should it now be up to YouTube to take it down? Isn’t that like blaming the street corner for the madman who stands on it to shout? Why is the government condemning WhatsApp when it failed to put Masood on an anti-terror watch list? Even if it had access to all WhatsApp messages, it would not have checked Masood’s prior to the attack.

The government’s unprecedented spying isn’t happening because it is needed now more than ever – there were more deaths from terrorism in the 1980s. It is happening simply because it is now technologically possible. So what stopped the release of George Orwell’s telescreen when 1984 rolled around? It wasn’t our democratic sensibilities. It was the limits of our technology. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition