Perverse repercussions of the Charlie Hebdo attack

Many media outlets have seen the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a grave threat to the freedom of expression. While the attack  itself can cause news outlets to self-censor their publications out of fear, it is not very fruitful to evaluate the state of civil liberties in the wake of terrorist attacks. Perversely, rather than strengthen the fundamental principles on which the freedom of expression is based, terror attacks have been used to limit communication rights: the Patriot Act was enacted just months after 9/11, while the Data Retention Directive was a direct consequence of the London and Madrid attacks.

Usually these laws have been enacted in the countries that have suffered from the attacks, but now David Cameron has proposed that Britain’s intelligence agencies should be allowed to break into the encrypted communications of instant messaging apps such as iMessage:

“In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications … The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”

The proposed measure is not only a textbook example of treating the symptoms and not the disease, but essentially a threat to the very freedom which several political leaders swore to protect after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Freedom of expression is inherently connected to the freedom from surveillance. Censorship cannot exist without the surveillance of communications. This proposed ban on encrypted communications would greatly impede the media outlets’ capacity to protect their informants, because as Cory Doctorow points out, weakening the security of communications also means that foreign spies, evil hackers and other wrongdoers will be able to access British communications, not only MI5.

It’s like the NSA/GCGQ leak never happened.

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