Bulk data collection and storage could make us more vulnerable to hacking attacks by terrorist groups
The new version of the Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ by critics was published yesterday. It made substantial amendments to de-encryption provisions, and rather cosmetic changes to sections on the collection and storage of communications data. The latest version of the bill might satisfy some of the MPs who had previously voiced opposition and called for enhanced privacy safeguards, but will it be effective in countering terrorism?
Bulk collection and storage of communications data combined with extended police powers may prove useful for the prosecution of criminals but there is no evidence that it would improve detection of terrorist activities in the pre-crime space. This suggests that there is doubt about the bill’s effectiveness in preventing terrorist attacks.
If we cannot even be sure whether this bill would save lives, what justifies its unprecedented intrusive nature?
Storing web browsing history of about 45 million British internet users seems like a risky move at a time when ISIS’s ‘Hacking Division’ is threatening to carry out large-scale cyber-attacks. Hassan Hassan warned in his book Isis: Inside the Army of Terror of ISIS’s technical agility and security expert Marc Goodman even alluded to its creation of an ‘army of hackers’.
ISIS’s hacking capabilities were demonstrated in last year’s attack on Twitter and Youtube accounts of the US Central Command. Revised or not, the Investigatory Powers Bill may not only increase the risk of abuse from within our government, but may also make the UK a more attractive target for cyber-crimes from both less friendly governments and terrorist organisations.
Another question we might want to ask is to what extent the notion of governmental spying may adversely impact our counter-extremism efforts. Considering the bill’s speedy revision, its latest version may not adequately responds to all concerns put forward by three separate parliamentary committees, including the joint committee for the bill itself, on the bill’s overall lack of clarity, transparency and proportionality.
Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, noted that the revised bill ‘barely pays lip service’ to the points made by the committees.
Storing internet connection records and allowing state powers to hack into computers and smartphones certainly sheds a hypocritical light upon the government’s definition of extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.
It is legal provisions such as those found in the latest bill that risk undermining the credibility of our counter-narrative initiatives that seek to expose the illiberal nature of extremist ideologies.
The expansion of police powers contained in the bill also raises doubts about the consistency of the government’s approach. It is incompatible with the government’s new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which promised an approach to strengthen government-civil society cooperation in countering extremism on the grassroots level.
Instead of moving away from a security-first approach, the new bill introduces even more draconian laws that will at best tackle the symptoms of extremism. How are we supposed to win ‘the war of words’ against ISIS, whose communications wing on average produces 38 individual propaganda pieces each day, if we do not even keep our own words?
Therefore, the bill might not just be ineffective in preventing terrorism but its immediate and ongoing effects might also prove counter-productive, as bulk data collection and storage could make us more vulnerable to hacking attacks, decrease the public’s trust in the government and cause new grievances that extremist recruiters can exploit. Rather than setting an international best practice, the government may inadvertently be playing into ISIS’s hands.
Julia Ebner is a policy analyst at Quilliam
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