The illusion of security

It seems as if the political process has been poisoned by the intelligence agencies, who are given more power with less accountability requested every time they fail. Interview.

Jérémie Zimmermann Agne Pix
7 January 2016
Post-apocalyptic future envisioned for 1984 film The Terminator.

Post-apocalyptic future envisioned for 1984 film The Terminator.Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Agne Pix (AP): We met to talk about an open and neutral Internet, however, recent tragic events have dramatically changed the context of our conversation. Tell me about the situation from your perspective as a civil liberties hacktivist and a Parisian. After the carnage in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 there were certain security measures taken. Why did they not prevent another terrorist attack in Paris?

Jérémie Zimmermann (JZ): In the last year and a half, four security laws have been adopted in France in the name of combating terrorism. Now would be the right time to question their efficiency.

Things did not start with Charlie Hebdo: in the last 15 years about fifteen other bills were adopted which closely followed the example of the US and some other European countries after 9/11. The most recent law, prolonging the state of emergency to three months and even renewable for longer, is the most striking because it coincides with the collective emotional shock and disorientation of French society as a whole after November 13. This state of emergency was adopted in an extremely rushed procedure, almost overnight, with no room for debate, so that one might surmise that most of the MPs did not have time to read the bill they voted for. It seems as if the political process has been poisoned by the intelligence agencies, who are given more power with less accountability requested every time they fail, so that this efficiency cannot even be assessed properly. We are in a downwards spiral, where policies that are driven by fear undermine the rule of law and fundamental rights, in favour of an illusion of more security.

AP: In the post-9/11 world, after 14 years of increased surveillance, billions spent on wars, torture and drones, why are western security forces still unable to detect a major terrorist attack?

JZ: The New America Foundation conducted a study on the effectiveness of mass surveillance which showed that it's mostly useless against terrorism. In the vast majority of cases it is targeted surveillance and human intelligence that foil plots. So mass surveillance does not work to prevent terrorist attacks but it has become the norm, pervades all our devices and communications, and is widely used everyday for economic and political espionage.

Since 9/11, following the lead of the NSA, in France and elsewhere huge investments were made into the technological means of mass interception, collection, storage and processing of communications, while human resources in the field were reduced.

Agents infiltrating targeted groups were substituted by big computer systems. This is a long-term trend, which may be way more comfortable for the personnel of spying agencies, but at the same time gives them unprecedented degrees of unaccountable power. And with what result? Four out of the eight killers at the Bataclan concert hall and Paris’ 11th district had already ben arrested and charged for offences related to terrorism, and four had traveled back and forth to Syria. They were known to the police and organized themselves using Facebook and SMS. Free speech has been used as a pretext to legitimize the drift towards a police state.

One of them spent thrice his monthly revenue renting apartments and cars, and still the computer surveillance did not detect that to prevent the tragic events. Now this failure of intelligence will mechanically enable them to gain more power, more resources, and less scrutiny.

This is simply wrong and will precisely lead to more of the injustice and imbalance of power that we should all be fighting against.

AP: Charlie Hebdo was perceived as a symbol of free speech, one of the fundamental French and European values. Now the state of emergency curbs this freedom.

JZ: One cannot call it a symbol of free speech when one week later security laws enabling mass surveillance are enacted, the military is put on the streets, and people are jailed for ‘incitement to terrorism’ for things they post on Facebook. Free speech has been used as a pretext to legitimize the drift towards a police state.

AP: From a civil rights point of view what are the most disconcerting measures introduced by the state of emergency after November 13?

JZ: Police can now search and seize any property any time without a court order. They can search computers, grab all of their data, as well as all of the data on any other computer the searched computer is connected to, think “the cloud”. Over 2500 homes have been raided, including some organic farmers from the south of France who protested two years ago against a silly and costly airport project, along with many others.

The government can now censor any website and block any protest or public gathering. They can house-arrest anyone, or jail for 6 months those who disobey such bans, and this just happened to environmental activists preparing to demonstrate at the COP21 conference on climate change. Out of these thousands of innocent people harassed and whose freedom have been unduly restricted by the police, only two cases were “signaled” to the anti-terror judges. How can this be justified?

AP: The state of emergency was extended from the usual 12 days to 3 months by the National Assembly's vote 551 to 6. Over 90% of French people approve of the extraordinary security measures. There's an overwhelming acceptance on the part of society to sacrificing part of their liberty on the altar of security.

JZ: I don't comment on polls and the so-called “perception of public opinion” because you can manipulate these numbers by formulating questions in a certain manner. If you ask “would you sacrifice freedom to gain more security” people may answer “yes,” but the question itself is an illusion. There is no such trade-off, no clear evidence that losing one will help you gain on the other.

The fact is, fear is being instrumentalised by politicians hoping to gain an advantage in the upcoming elections. History has taught us that when you install scaremongering policies it backfires into an escalation of violence. Interestingly, what the so-called “socialist” president François Hollande and PM Manuel Valls have proposed for this emergency law has been taken directly from proposals by Sarkozy's conservative party and the far-right National Front. As if the whole political landscape in France was inexorably drifting to the far right. 

9/11 and 11/13

AP: You described the shock and awe vicious circle in a tweet just after the Paris attacks: first horror, then sadness, followed by political exploitation, media uproar, restriction of freedoms, hate again and then back to horror. Is France, the homeland of  liberté, egalité, fraternité, now succumbing to a new “war on terror”?

JZ: It is the same pattern as after 9/11, but the difference is that in the US it took them 6 weeks to pass the Patriot Act, while in France the emergency legislation was adopted in a couple of days. But another similarity with 9/11 is the way a society in deep shock and  traumatised is constantly bombarded by media with violent images and warmongering rhetoric.

Politicians like Hollande, and Bush at the time, who were low in the ratings, used it to raise their profile as reassuring champions of security, hoping that this boost would last long enough to get them re-elected. They don't address the real causes of terrorism, and completely refuse to acknowledge the failures of intelligence and foreign policy, among others... They don't address the real causes of terrorism, and completely refuse to acknowledge the failures of intelligence and foreign policy, among others...

Instead they focus public discourse on random issues and repeat the same errors. By exploiting fear to their personal advantage and by attacking fundamental freedoms to this end, politicians are undermining their own legitimacy, that of the institutions they represent and the democratic models which they are in charge of defending.

I have the sense that this is part of a downward spiral towards authoritarianism and that we will experience yet more fear and violence, antidemocratic backlash and crackdown on fundamental rights. 

AP: In the first hours after the Paris attacks, President Hollande initially appealed for calm and unity. Then the government lost their nerve and pushed through intrusive legislation. Human Rights Watch points out that the new sweeping powers are disproportionate. Amnesty International warns that repression will be codified and new proposals are expected to expand surveillance worldwide in the name of counter-terrorism. Are we up for another decade of the same old failed responses and a Europe that has learned nothing from the US mistakes?

JZ: I wish the EU was different and able to reflect, but, apparently, unfortunately, it is not. I'm very concerned now that this collective psychosis in France that has turned it into a police state in a just few days will duly spread to the rest of the EU. We just saw Belgium in a nearly one-week lockdown mimicking French emergency measures under political pressure.

Scapegoats, cryptos, Achilles and Snowden

AP: At the European level we can already observe moves that confirm your concerns.  Interestingly enough, the first calls to ban encryption came from the US, followed by the UK. Encryption was vilified as the Internet’s “Achilles heel.” However, the terrorist leader was already bragging about his plot in a publicly available jihadist web magazine in February.

JZ: This is the exploitation of fear for political gain in another form. In the USA for months now we could sense the arrival of the second "Crypto War,” based on what we saw during the first failed attempts to ban crypto in the 90s.

In France, crypto was illegal until the early 00s and it was considered a “weapon of war” but people used it anyway. Crypto can be a problem for authoritarian governments because it means using mathematics to exercise your fundamental right to privacy. Such regimes want to be able to violate privacy any time.

The White House has recently withdrawn their attempts to block crypto, but the UK PM David Cameron is still keen to uphold these efforts. A few hours after the Paris attacks, unidentified US ‘officials’ fed the international press with allegations that the Paris terrorists were using encryption and therefore we should ban it.

That was a red herring to avoid what should really have been discussed: the failures of French intelligence services to prevent the attacks. It happens that the terrorists were using SMS and Facebook, centralized and US-controlled communication services nobody calls upon to be outlawed. It is now clear that the second “Crypto War” is under way and it does not limit itself to the US only, but it is being exported to France, the UK, and the rest of the world.

Western governments are actively seeking to restrict the autonomy of their citizens. Western governments are actively seeking to restrict the autonomy of their citizens. More than ever it shows that we should all be using the encryption of our communications to protect ourselves, and as a matter of principle. Indeed, terrorists will use it too, but it would not be an obstacle to properly targeted surveillance and infiltration of these groups, if intelligence agencies were doing their job properly...

I think that Daesh terrorists, whose business model is to exploit fear, must be loving this, because we are literally playing their game: if their objective was to attack our freedoms and way of life, we are finishing their job for them by getting terrorized and restricting our rights ourselves. We cannot protect our freedoms by restricting them. 

AP: Another scapegoat strategy is “the Snowden effect.” After the Paris massacre, again, prominent US and UK politicians pointed to Edward Snowden as having blood on his hands for having promoted encryption that, they alleged, enabled terrorists to secretly communicate.

JZ: I sincerely hope that the more our governments turn authoritarian, the more their citizens learn to use end-to-end encryption, free/libre open software and decentralized services, because that's the only way we can protect ourselves and our communications from abuses, injustice and tyranny, whether in authoritarian regimes or in ‘democracies’ drifting towards police states. Attempts at scapegoating Snowden or encryption in general are yet another way of diverting attention away from the failures of anti-terrorism as a mode of government.

AP: Isn't safety a basic need, more important than personal or collective freedoms? In Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, security comes just after physiological needs like food or sleep. Do you think it is possible to strike a balance between privacy and security?

JZ: There is no balance to strike. There is no balance to strike… Such rhetoric seems designed to habituate us to seeing our freedoms sacrificed. It is unacceptable! That was an argument of the far right in the 80s and 90s in France and now the allegedly ‘socialist’ government has recycled it by saying that “security is the first of all freedoms.”  This narrative is an outrageous fallacy. Freedoms cannot be traded for each other, and there is indeed no evidence that by sacrificing freedoms we would actually get more security... Rather the other way around if you look at the US. Our fundamental freedoms should be considered altogether, as a non-negotiable, uncompromising package. The legitimacy of our governments and institution is bound to their ability to preserve the package as a whole.

Such rhetoric seems designed to habituate us to seeing our freedoms sacrificed. It is unacceptable! Various constitutions mention safety as a fundamental right but it is often defined as protection against arbitrary use of power by the state. In history, the security of individuals have most of the time been threatened by states. Only very recently, also by companies... The notion of “national security” comes from the US and it is not very well defined, I think. Is it about the security of everyone? Or security for those who write the law, of the institutions and their representatives, of the infrastructure? 

Freedom or barbarie

AP: The Internet is a powerful communication tool, but not the cause of violence. However, it is definitely vulnerable to hateful content. Don't we need some form of governance to protect it, just like we have certain rules in society to govern our behavior and exchanges?

JZ: There's big hype around the concept of Internet governance. It is a pretext for boring, yet completely shallow and powerless meetings in the world’s more exotic locations, while at the same time state administrations and corporations have been able to successfully take over the Internet for the last 15 years. We individuals are somehow out of the loop, unable to participate.

Now, if we talk about how to collectively participate in governing the Internet, we could think of countless decisions that actually do affect the Net. Some of them are purely technological decisions, when new protocols are being invented, developed and spread, for instance BitTorrent, Jabber, and various voice protocols. Also, political decisions often have an effect on the Net: when a government attempts at censoring parts of the network for their populations, and other stupid or dangerous pieces of legislation. These are always local, national choices. Then there are cultural and social decisions to use Facebook, YouTube, Google and make it extremely big and powerful, or to opt out of it. So there's a myriad of actors, and political, economic, technological and individual decisions to be taken. All this together in its whacky diversity leads to the collective governance of the Internet.

We all have a role in that, whether or not we can afford a ticket to the next farcical Internet Governance Forum. All the decisions regarding the Internet, whether political, technological or economic, should be taken on the basis of strong, uncompromising ethical principles, and not private interests. 

AP: Allegedly jihadists “go dark” to avoid detection or even use Sony’s PlayStation 4 encryption, according to Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon. Some services in France's Ministry of Interior were apparently considering blocking TOR. Is balkanization the future of the Internet?

JZ: Rhetoric about the “Dark Net” seems to be a dangerous construction used to describe the technologies that help you to protect your freedom and fundamental right to privacy as somehow dark, or dangerous. When you are using them you're not more “dark,” you're more free. So what has been called “Dark Net” should be called “Freedom Net.” So what has been called “Dark Net” should be called “Freedom Net.” The Internet means the freedom of any 2 given computers to connect via a protocol of their choice. So choosing to use protocols that are only understandable by your destination is part of the essence of the Net.

The distinction to make is that there is a part of the Internet that can be easily spied upon to enable mass surveillance, profiling and predictive algorithms on the collective data of individuals, all of them detrimental to democracy. That's the Google Internet, where they can suck in every bit of data and turn it into a goldmine and a source of intelligence, used by a very few powerful actors. And then there's the rest, where we may still have a faint glimpse of hope that we can develop ourselves, think, speak, discuss and organize without being spied upon and analyzed at all times.

PA: You said that there was no difference between the virtual and “real” life: both are interconnected. But the sad fact is that we are not safe on the Internet any more. Are you pessimistic or optimistic about its future?

JZ: Both, like Schrödinger's cat  (laughs). Seriously, I don't know, because I don't read  the future. It's all in our hands. It depends on our capacity to organize and mobilize, to be courageous, to do the right thing, to invent and reinvent ourselves, to create material, affective and political solidarity, to improve our skills, to never give up and to always question everything. It's freedom or barbarie. It's a struggle for humanity. Otherwise, we are heading towards a world looking like Terminator mashed-up with Soylent Green.

Film poster for Soylent Green.

Film poster for Soylent Green. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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