Would Better Spying Have Prevented The Paris Attacks?

Would Better Spying Have Prevented The Paris Attacks?

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Last Friday reports poured in from Paris about coordinated terrorist attacks at a football stadium, a Cambodian restaurant and an Eagles of Death Metal concert. When violent massacres happen, governments always quickly promise to tighten security measures so that nothing like this will happen again. In this case though, governments also made sure to say that they probably could have stopped the attackers if only they had a little bit more power to spy on people.

After the attacks, CNN was quick to implicate refugees for providing cover for the terrorists, while western governments insisted that this would have never happened if whistleblowers like Edward Snowden hadn’t put the kibosh on cell phone surveillance techniques.

A lot of this is getting lost on social media as people wonder why the media chose to cover Paris so extensively while ignoring similar violent acts in other countries. Others have correctly pointed out that the news did in fact cover those other events quite extensively, and reminded people that your Facebook wall is not the entire news media.

It brings up the timeless security and surveillance versus civil liberties debate, so we rounded-up some facts on France’s security laws to see whether increased surveillance would have changed anything. Let’s take a look…

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, France passed extremely strict laws giving the government authority to spy on people. Passed in May, the laws allow spy agencies to tap into anyone’s phone calls and emails without requiring a judge’s permission.

The law also requires Internet Service Providers to collect and analyze metadata on the internet histories of millions of French citizens. The same law also allows the government to use “ISMI catchers” to track all mobile phone communications in a given area. These ISMI catchers resemble cell towers, but they have the ability to track the physical locations of every phone in the area. French government agents are also now allowed to break into the homes of suspected terrorists in order to plant bugs, cameras and surveillance devices that capture every keystroke and click on a computer.

British lawmakers are currently debating the Investigatory Powers Bill, powerful surveillance legislation that would give spies legal authority to hack phones and computers while forcing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to record and keep every internet user’s history for one year. But legal expert David Allen Green points out that upping surveillance because of Paris doesn’t make any sense because France already had these laws and they clearly didn’t work in this case.

Tom Wheeler, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, told a House subcommittee that Congress could allow the FCC to assist law enforcement, such as allowing the government to hack into people’s video game consoles. Early reports, since debunked, suggested that the terrorists communicated via PlayStation.

To prove their point, government officials in Western countries are trying to make this seem like Edward Snowden’s fault. Former CIA director James Woolsey told MSNBC that Snowden has “blood on his hands” for exposing the surveillance methods that supposedly could have been used to detect the terrorists before their act.

“It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught,” London mayor Boris Johnson said about Snowden.

At The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald explains that this argument holds no water. In early 2001, months before 9/11, the the NSA chief complained to the Christian Science Monitor that al Qaeda’s encryption techniques were too sophisticated for American spies. “I was a bit surprised just by how quickly and blatantly — how shamelessly — some of them jumped to exploit the emotions prompted by the carnage in France to blame Snowden: doing so literally as the bodies still lay on the streets of Paris.”

(featured image via Petit Louis)

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