I think most of us knew, or feared, that the wonders of the Internet might also become a weapon in the wrong hands, whether of our own government, criminals, dictators, or terrorists. We also knew, or feared—well before Edward Snowden’s revelations—that as threats to our security mounted (or were said to be mounting), so too would threats to our privacy. At some point, we were going to be asked to sacrifice, again, for the sake of “national security.” Snowden, working on the inside of the security system, understood all this more clearly than most, and did something extraordinary about it.
Since then, we have watched as new documentation emerged about the extensiveness of government surveillance of our private communications—and of the cooperation, willingly or not, that telecommunications companies and social media have given to government to probe our email, telephone calls, and all the rest with virtually no nonofficial oversight but with the full weight of the Patriot Act (up for extension this year). The so-called metadata collection that has gone on for years is mindboggling—enough to alarm at least some legislators in the US, Britain, and other countries about the insistent chipping away of what once was assumed to be private activity. No one, it seems, including heads of state (ask Germany’s Angela Merkel), can talk without assurance that someone isn’t listening in or collecting data.
The next phase in the battle over the limits of privacy is now at hand, in two forms: official intrusions into social media, and a widening dragnet to capture presumed terrorists. On the first, a leading figure in Britain’s intelligence community emerged from the darkness last year to urge a debate about restricting social media in order to combat ISIS and other terror groups. His claim is that terrorists have learned how to encrypt messages they send to each other and to prospective recruits via Twitter and other social media. He did not propose a specific remedy, and professed concerns about the implications of such restrictions for the privacy of ordinary citizens. But he was quite clear that something fundamental must be done to disrupt the terrorists’ lines of communication.
The Charlie Hebdo attack provided the justification for the British government to put those thoughts into action. Prime Minister David Cameron said that British intelligence simply must have access to social media services that use encrypted messaging systems (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/british-prime-minister-suggests-banning-some-online-messaging-apps/). “Are we going to allow a means of communication which it simply is impossible to read?” he asked. If the social media companies in Britain, as well as Google, Facebook, and the like, won’t play ball, Cameron said, they’ll be banned. End of conversation, literally. (Oh, by the way, national elections in Britain will be held in May. An opportune time to show toughness with terrorism.)
(If you want some idea of just how far government invasion of social media can go, consider South Korea, where the national intelligence service secretly manipulated the Internet and social media to attack the opposition candidate in the 2012 presidential election. The abuse became a major scandal for the current government when it was discovered.)
The second limit, also given impetus by the Charlie Hebdo killings, is underway in France and elsewhere in the EU. The French government, under a law enacted in November, is jailing anyone who advocates or sympathizes with terrorists, or with terrorism. “Words or acts of hatred” are the justice ministry’s target as it begins sweeping some people off the streets. The obvious double standard here is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are free, in the name of political satire, to offend the Prophet Muhammad while a Muslim citizen risks four or more years in jail for yelling support of Charlie’s attackers. (Here again, electoral politics lies in the background: President François Hollande was extremely unpopular until “France’s 9/11,” as some people are calling it. Now he’s been given new life.) As official control of information technology tightens and privacy for the rest of us withers away, expect that European Big Brothers will widen the net, in ways that go well beyond restrictions on speech and movement—and with public support.*
Though there was a brief public outcry in the US over metadata collection, it quickly dissipated. I sense that most people, considering themselves law-abiding, do not see the erosion of privacy or police sweeps in Europe as relevant to their lives, and accept government assurances that new restrictions on personal liberties are (and will continue to be) modest though necessary. We should strive for “balance,” President Obama said. Yet when we recall previous eras where the balance swung toward government surveillance, intrusions, and unjustified arrests—the Palmer Raids, McCarthyism, Watergate, 9/11—we have reason for concern about
where the anti-terrorism battle is headed. As threats, real and exaggerated, mount around the world, and as the US and other governments determine that all of them need to be confronted, we citizens—who in most cases have thus far been insulated from actual combat and horrible destruction—will be asked to sacrifice in ways that may seem very small but in fact will be anything but.
Challenging the powerful forces behind “national security” is extremely difficult. I fear that a terrible future, similar to the one Orwell (or Bertram Gross, in Friendly Fascism) imagined, awaits us. The costs to civil liberties are bound to outweigh the number of people who actually threaten us.
*Credit the Paris authorities, however, for banning some anti-Muslim demonstrations.