Theresa May Targets the Internet

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Barely a few days after the horrendous attacks that occurred in London on 3 June 2017 Theresa May saw this as an opportunity to push her parties agenda to allow encryption backdoors. This comes two weeks after May and her Conservative Party listed proposals for wider Internet surveillance laws within the parties most recent election manifesto. While this would not be the first time politicians used a tragedy to push legislation through law-making bodies that imposed restrictions on citizens while broadening and fundamentally increasing surveillance law. This seems to be another case where politicians exhibit no shame in using a tragedy for their own agenda.

This supposed crackdown on the Internet in the interests of safety and counter-terrorism comes only months after the Conservative Government, with May championing the legislation,  passed the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) which included the following legislative changes to regulation and surveillance:
•    Internet Service Providers must log every user's web browsing history for a year.
•    Police and other law enforcement agencies can access this data through a specialized interface and search for suspects or general profiles.
•    Security services can access and analyze public and private databases.
•    Government agencies can still collect communications data in bulk, just like through RIPA.
•    Police and other law enforcement agencies can, under certain circumstances, hack into users' devices.
•    Communications operators must remove their side of encryption and help state agencies access data or devices.

The bill was passed in both houses of parliament despite numerous calls from corporations and civil society groups to have it scrapped. Edward Snowden, a crusader to some villain to authoritarian institutions, referred to the IP Bill as "the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy." Given that not even the NSA is safe from hacks, data dumps, and leaks having an encryption backdoor may be a Pandora’s Box of devastating proportions.

Old and Tactless Tactic

As was mentioned above this is not a new tactic of using terrorism and public safety as reasons to curtail Internet freedoms and condone invasions of privacy by state institutions. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, the French introduced new laws for warrantless searches, ISPs to collect communications metadata, and voided aspects of oversight for certain intelligence agencies. It was later proved that the terrorists who planned and executed this particular attack used none of the encryption methods governments are looking to curtail. Also as a result of the Terror attacks in France that year, the EU used the attacks as a premise to place more pressure on Bitcoin by means of legislations to force the company to attach accounts to real identities. Authorities argued that Bitcoin was used to fund terrorism and other criminal activities via the Dark Web. These assumptions were later to be proven false.

Theresa May targets the Internet

In another instance of government encroachment on what was once a free internet EU regulators are forcing social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google to crack down on extremist content and content that amounts to hate speech. Failure to do so would result in massive fines been imposed on the above-mentioned companies. While this opens up ethical debates as to freedom of speech and other human rights issues, it also appears that governments are attempting to shift the blame. Historically it has been up to legislative bodies and a countries justice systems to deem and prevent what is hate speech. The same could be said for the justice system setting limits on what would be consider fostering extremism and what would fall within the realms of freedom of speech. By making companies responsible for the views of others, almost certainly not their own views, shifts the responsibility and dirties the water as to what extent companies need to police people using their services.

Mass Surveillance

As to whether mass surveillance techniques deployed by governments around the world are successful in preventing terrorism and other forms of extremism conclusive evidence are hard to find. Two independent reviews conducted in 2014 showed that out the 255 cases investigated involving suspected terrorism only four of those cases resulted from using phone metadata. Of that four none of the acts of terrorism were prevented. Snowden contends that analysts are just buried under too much data to actively prevent terrorist attacks. After the Paris attacks governments were quick to assign blame to internet encryption and the privacy policies of companies in Silicon Valley. However, in the case of the Paris attacks, it was the failure of authorities to act on information they already had in their possession rather than any privacy policy or end to end encryption. After the recent Manchester and London attacks again governments were quick to assign blame yet again to privacy policies and end to end encryption with little proof of that been the case. In fact, such statements were made on Sunday, the day after the attack, leaving very little time for a comprehensive investigation to take place as to methods employed by the attackers.

Orwellian Analogies

As soon as measures are proposed by governments globally that aim to curtail freedoms or provide a greater framework for surveillance of any kind journalists in disagreement with those policies will inevitably invoke George Orwell’s seminal work 1984. As in the novel, fear is used by those in power to limit not only the populace’s movement but thought as well. While terrorism is a very real danger and caused untold suffering globally those in power should not use it as an excuse to institute fundamentally un-democratic legislation. The internet has proved to be a vital tool for empowering and informing people. While there are challenges to face regarding the promulgation of extremist ideas and its use for criminal activities encroaching on fundamental human rights is not the way to ensure it remains one of humanities greatest achievements. No longer should we accept that such legislation is for our safety when clearly it is not.