Is Surveillance Helping Britain’s War On Terror?

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The British surveillance state has been in the making for centuries. Now that it's here, is it effective?

Terrorism and surveillance are never too far apart from one another. Ever since Britons have been writing letters, their governments have been trying to read them.

In 1586, Mary, the Queen of Scots, was beheaded after her coded letter was intercepted, decrypted and understood to have given consent for a plot to kill the then-Queen, Elizabeth I. Mary’s plot went askew thanks to a codebreaker who got his hands on her letter, and forwarded it to the authorities with a gallows sign.

With the passing of the Investigative Powers Act (IP Act) in 2016, that codebreaker could be any one of Britain’s several hundred thousand officers in the intelligence agencies, law enforcement bureaus or armed forces. The IP Act, known as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, grants unprecedented powers of the surveillance, monitoring and hacking of electronic device. It mandates internet service providers to store your internet history for up to a year – and even the National Health Service could request a peek if they so desired.

In the 21st century, it is normal for a terror attack to be followed by more powers to the government. 9/11 was followed by the Patriot Act; the 2002 Indian Parliament attack, by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). France has been in a state of emergency since November 2015.

The latest attack is a chance for a pause in the cycle of attack and reaction. Early reports suggest that the attacker was the son of asylum seekers from Pakistan, who had been reported by his neighbours and even a former friend for his radical beliefs. Disturbingly, the friend reports that he was radicalized online by a Palestinian-American preacher on YouTube – whose videos remain widely available on the website.

What went wrong with the world’s largest surveillance state if it couldn’t pick up someone who ticks all the boxes of a 21st century cyber-grown terrorist?

Britain’s security net has prevented terrorists from accessing heavy weaponry, of the kind often used in shootings in Europe and the United States. But as recent attacks prove, considerable damage can still be wreaked with a truck and a knife. But, from a security point of view, there’s no resourceful way to track every possible threat in the United Kingdom. There have been over 20,000 subjects of interest, 3,000 individuals for which 50 investigations are pending – but only the resources to monitor 40 on a 24/7 basis at any one point of time.

Blanket surveillance guarantees data retention – but if this information is only useful in hindsight, does it achieve the stated goal of defeating terrorism?

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The problem is both of logistics and ethics. Accessing troves of intelligence is not Britain’s challenge – being a member of the five eyes agreement should suffice for data gathering – it’s being able to act on intel about homegrown terror cells.

As with much else in the world, the future lies in automation. CCTV footage, once painfully analysed by eye, could be studied by a machine instead. Indeed, there’s an app for that (or to be more accurate, a software).

The machines can identify faces. But given enough information, could they pick out targets?

“We kill people based on metadata”

Metadata, which is data that provides information about other data, is your virtual bread trail – collected by everything from your cell phone to your Candy Crush app. It’s the time you called someone, the place you were when you did so and the duration of your talk. When coupled with the actual contents of your message, you get a stunningly accurate portrait of a person’s life.

Former CIA and NSA director, Michael Haydon, held nothing back in a debate at John Hopkins Univerity, when he said:

We kill people based on metadata

There’s a frightening pause, after which he adds:

…but that’s not what we do with this data.

How metadata is acted on varies greatly between North America and South Asia. For American citizens, their personal data is collected, even sold, but it may only affect them in the event of of a court case or ongoing investigation.

In Pakistan, metadata determines who a drone strike target is. Based on a target’s pattern of life, social network and travel behaviour, an algorithm determines his or her value as a target. Up to 4000 people may have been killed in drone strikes based on this program, imaginatively titled “SKYNET“. This program was the subject of an in-depth investigation by the Intercept, but what should or could concern Britain was the case of Bilal Al-Berjawi.

A British-Lebanese citizen, he was born in Lebanon, arriving in London soon after. He grew up in St. John’s Wood and had a relatively ordinary life in Britain – until 2006, when he received his first training in explosives at a camp, possibly in Somalia.

Much like Salman Abedi and the current suspect in the London attacks, Berjawi was on the intelligence scanner. Not just of Britain, but also of the United States. For five years, both countries tracked his every move, as he frequently travelled outside the country and back. He was developing links with Al-Qaeda and in particular, Al-Shabaab. Yet, numerous opportunities to arrest and detain him permanently were left untouched. He started a family, worked as a plumber, all while keeping up with his activities in East Africa. In 2010, he was stripped of his British citizenship. With no right to return to the U.K, he was now clear for a ‘targeted killing.’

In 2012, a U.S. drone strike killed him in Somalia; with a direct missile strike to his car. It is unclear as to the extent of the intelligence gathered from monitoring Berjawi – he was known to have been an associate of ‘Jihadi John’ – but it was a textbook case of what intelligence agencies are capable of, given enough information.

Future powers


Standing in front of Downing Street on the morning of June 5, Prime Minister Theresa May said:

We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed – yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide…

Her statement is the latest in the Conservative plan to tighten control over Britain’s internet. As this statement from their manifesto reads:

Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.

It’s clear that May’s approach to combating terror requires a greater degree of police presence within the Internet. The problem is whether authorities can track jihadi propaganda once it is ‘removed’ from the surface web – the front pages of Google or the many deep ends on YouTube. Radicals who post on these monitored platforms are ripe for intelligence gathering. But their ‘safe spaces’ could include encrypted, proxied services like Tor or Internet Chat Relays (IRCs) – significantly harder, if not impossible, to monitor.

The ambit of regulating an otherwise ‘neutral’ internet extends beyond terrorism. The Conservative manifesto mentions tackling pornography as part of its ambit – the context being the United Kingdom’s ban of a range of porn ‘genres’ in 2014, this would better mandate service providers to prevent access to the same.

It’s a similar story in the United States. After The Guardian published its report on the NSA in collaboration with whistleblower Edward Snowden, American defence personnel across the world were barred access to the online newspaper.

There was, as is often the case, a Brexit twist. In November last year, a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) put a temporary halt to Britain’s plans to push through the Snooper’s Charter. Issued just a week before the Queen was to give the Snooper’s Charter its Royal Assent, the ECJ opposed the mass retention of data, but it received Royal Assent anyway.

Negotiations on remaining within the ECJ will remain a core part of Brexit negotiations. But within Britain, the power surrendered to the surveillance state has yet to prove itself capable of preventing attacks of the sort that happened in Manchester, Westminster Abbey and the London Bridge this year.


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