More cyber-snooping won’t stop terrorists, it’ll help them

The government always wants more snooping power, but it hasn’t thought its plans through argues Simon Munk.

By PsiMonk 27/06/2012 13:34

Copyright: CamEl Creative/Getty ImagesDavid Cameron and his ministers seem to have the hots for gaining new powers to monitor social networks, email and phone calls more widely.


While Theresa May talks up the supposed benefits of the “cyber-snoopers’ charter”, Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, with (ahem) spooky timing, has warned that the agency is battling an “astonishing” level of cyber-attacks on the UK.


A debate last night brought MPs, professors and journalists together to discuss the findings in think-tank Demos’ new report into Social Media Intelligence (‘SOCMINT’). In it, it qualifies how such snooping could be a good thing.


Measures like these are supposedly to stop potential terrorist attacks, but the idea fatally misunderstands the world we live in now.

"Not only will increased cyber-surveillance prove useless, but ultimately counter-productive"

Those in authority are pushing hard to prove we need these new powers. But they’re wrong – not only will increased cyber-surveillance prove useless, but ultimately counter-productive.

The world has changed – and social networks have changed it. Terrorists can spring from anywhere – they may train in a foreign camp, but may equally learn their craft from the internet; they may be recruited online, or locally. The idea that we’ll catch the bad people by monitoring emails and Facebook messages is patently stupid – terrorists will simply adapt and change tactics. They’ve already proven they’re good at doing that.

Instead, we’ll have more and more idiotic civil liberties cases. Today, Paul Chambers, a trainee accountant, is facing a High Court appeal after he joked he was going to blow up an airport on Twitter when his plane was delayed.

And Sheffield student Richard O’Dwyer is facing extradition to the US, for running a non-US website that let people find TV and film content, but didn’t host any of that content. All on a treaty introduced to ensure ‘terrorists’ could be brought to justice.

"The best thing western governments could do to stop fuelling terrorism, is start playing fair."

The gigantic net our government wants to throw over the internet won’t catch more sharks, it won’t even get many minnows – it’ll get the flotsam and jetsam.

Worse, these new cyber-snooping powers, as well as making terrorists think and act smarter, will just add another grievance to their list. I’m not for one second trying to legitimise terrorism – but the easiest and best thing western governments could do to stop fuelling terrorism, is start playing fair.

Terrorism thrives where a population perceives there to be a grave injustice against it. And the West can do much more to cut those perceptions.

Social networks allow everyone to see the hypocrisy of developed countries - imbalanced trade rules; IMF loans and subsequent “austerity measures” and “trade liberalisation” that dispossess the poor from vital farming land; dictators armed in return for mineral rights. It’s all on Wikileaks, YouTube and Twitter – the way we treat other people stinks, and until we change that, we can expect to face more angry, motivated terrorists.

Pretending we live in a fortress and spying on everyone inside and out makes for a darkly paranoid view of the world. The alternative? Recognise we are ever more connected, and start treating the rest of the world as we’d expect to be treated ourselves.

Simon Munk is a technology journalist, who has been tinkering with technology since taking apart a parking meter when he was four. Follow Simon Munk on Twitter @psimonk

What do you think? Is a government cyber watchdog essential for our safety or does it create dangers of its own? Let us know in the comments below, or join the debate on Twitter with the #socialvoices hastag.

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