London, United Kingdom – Privacy and civil liberties campaigners have accused David Cameron, the British prime minister, of “cynically exploiting” last week’s attacks in Paris to call for even more stringent counterterrorism and surveillance powers than those already being controversially pushed through parliament.
Speaking earlier this week, Cameron pledged to give British security services greater capabilities to monitor and read online communications, and said countries such as the UK and France were facing a “fanatical death cult of Islamist extremist violence”.
“The attacks in Paris once again demonstrated the scale of the terrorist threat that we face and we have to have robust powers … to keep our people safe,” he said. “The powers that I believe we need, whether on communications data or on the content of communications, I am very comfortable they are absolutely right for a modern liberal democracy.”
Cameron’s comments followed last week’s speech by Andrew Parker, director general of the UK’s MI5 intelligence agency, warning the security services’ ability to protect the country risked being compromised unless they were granted “powerful capabilities” to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists’ online communications.
But they also came as a parliamentary human rights committee called on the government to rethink elements of its current counterterrorism and security bill, which some civil liberties groups have said will subject Muslim communities to “Orwellian” levels of surveillance.
Other members of Cameron’s right-wing Conservative Party – which has seen past efforts to legislate greater surveillance powers blocked by its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but hopes to govern in its own right after general elections in May – were even more candid.
“You have got to have a very tough security solution to be absolutely determined to monitor these people, know where they are, know who they’re talking to,” said Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. “I’m not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff.”
But internet privacy advocates reacted with scepticism and alarm, and questioned whether effective monitoring of encrypted online communication services such as Whatsapp or Snapchat was even achievable.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said Cameron’s proposals were “dangerous, ill-thought out and scary”.
“On Sunday, David Cameron marched for freedom of expression in France. It is grimly ironic that the immediate government response to an attack on freedom of speech is to curb our civil liberties,” Killock told Al Jazeera.
“After an attack like the appalling Paris murders, the general public are at their most sympathetic to the work of the security services. But this sympathy should not be exploited to increase powers that threaten everyone’s liberty.”
Those concerns were echoed by Christopher Graham, the government’s own information commissioner, who said: “We need cool heads to analyse carefully what information the security services had access to and how they used it before necessarily concluding that we must give them access to more and more of our private information.
“We must avoid knee-jerk reactions. In particular, I am concerned about any compromising of effective encryption for consumers of online services.”
Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said attacks such as those in Paris and last year’s murder of a British soldier in London, in both of which the killers had been well known to the security services, demonstrated the need for better resourced, focused intelligence operations, rather than blanket surveillance powers.
“It is imperative that the tragedy in Paris is not used as a catalyst to drive through controversial snooping powers,” she told Al Jazeera. “The most important thing is to ensure that there are adequate resources for those identified as a potential threat to our society to be monitored. This does not require powers that would put an entire population’s communications under surveillance.”
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Muslim rights groups also expressed anger with the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) on Tuesday, announcing it would no longer participate in government consultations in protest at the counterterrorism and security bill currently being scrutinised by parliament.
On Monday, the parliamentary joint committee on human rights said proposed measures to temporarily exclude British citizens abroad from returning to the UK for up to two years, intended to mitigate the potential threat posed by returnees from Syria, risked violating their human rights, and raised concerns about the implications for free speech of proposals to silence so-called extremist preachers.
Other measures in the bill, which the government has nonetheless vowed to make law before the forthcoming election, would require public institutions including schools, universities and even nurseries to monitor and report extremism through the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme, which critics say already disproportionately targets Muslim communities.
“It is IHRC’s view that the current proposals are far and away the most Orwellian to date; they will erode civil liberties and turn the UK into a police state,” the organisation said in a statement.
“Cameron’s intentions fall into an established pattern of state behaviour: Every time there is a terrorist act committed by a Muslim the moment is cynically exploited by politicians to widen the powers of the security services, erode fundamental freedoms, and further target and marginalise the Muslim community.”
Shuja Shafi, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, also called on the government to rethink the bill, and said its proposals would “keep us neither safe nor free”.
“2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Rather than celebrating this charter of liberties, our government is curtailing hard-won freedoms,” said Shafi. “The proposed bill will add to the climate of fear and victimisation within the Muslim community, further weakening trust with public authorities.”
Raising the stakes
Security analysts say the Paris attacks coupled with the potential danger posed by the possible return of hundreds of British Muslims currently believed to be fighting in Syria have raised the stakes for the intelligence agencies.
Parker, the head of MI5, said last week three plots had been foiled in recent months and noted that terrorism arrests were up more than one-third compared with four years ago. He said the number of “crude but potentially deadly” plots had increased, and said these were often carried out by “volatile individuals acting spontaneously”.
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“This sort of attack will only serve to further increase security services’ concerns,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
“I think what we will see in the wake of this incident is a return to the question of what do you do with persistent radical individuals. These are people who bump along in security services’ radar and are of concern for a long period of time but never seem to cross that threshold of moving into action.
“The problem is that pool is quite large and security services resources are quite limited. And as we’ve seen now, these guys can go 10 years being involved in radical activity before they decide to carry out their act.”
But those at the sharp end of counterterrorism measures say further intrusion into the lives of those deemed to pose a potential threat only risked fuelling further anger and alienation.
One individual, a former cleric who no longer preaches and did not want to be identified, told Al Jazeera he and others had been regularly harassed by security services and counterterrorism police for years, despite never having advocated violence.
He said the government should instead recognise grievances about British foreign policy and the impact of the so-called “war on terror” on Muslim communities if it was genuine about wanting to reduce the risk of future attacks in the United Kingdom.
“They raid us, they question us, they put us in prison, but they haven’t disrupted anything because the threat is still out there,” he said.
“Our beliefs are being attacked constantly. You are pushing people to hide their beliefs, and they are not able to express themselves and their anger in the correct way. Now they are blaming the internet. You might as well start banning books.”