Some politicians in the UK are calling for the government to hurry new surveillance laws into power following deadly terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday. Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said that the Investigatory Powers Bill — which was unveiled in draft form two weeks ago — should be "expedited" and put into action "as soon as possible," rather than by the end of 2016.
The UK prime minister David Cameron expressed similar concerns on BBC radio this morning, saying that the government should "look at the timetable" of the legislation. He also announced that the UK would hire 1,900 new security and intelligence staff at MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (an increase of 15 percent) in order to "respond to the increasing international terrorist threat." Cameron added that the attacks in France, which killed 129 people and wounded more than 300, "could happen here."
"less and less sympathy" for those opposed to surveillance
Writing in The Telegraph, London mayor Boris Johnson said that he had "less and less sympathy" for those opposing the Investigatory Powers Bill. "To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me," said Johnson. "It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police."
However, critics of the government's approach have pointed out that France already has digital surveillance legislation in place that is more stringent than the UK's. Following the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January this year, the French government passed laws allowing spy agencies to monitor the phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists without judicial authorization, and forced ISPs to install so-called black boxes in their infrastructure to allow the capture of internet data.
"Not a single person calling for more legal powers for security powers can explain how those powers would actually prevent atrocities," tweeted the lawyer and law commentator David Allen Green. "France *already* had the state surveillance powers which the UK security lobby are now urging. The Paris atrocities still happened."
"France already had [these] powers... The Paris atrocities still happened."
The proposed legislation in the UK covers a number of aspects of digital surveillance, giving spies legal powers to hack target's computers and smartphones, allowing police officers bulk access to metadata without the need for a warrant (metadata is the who, what, and when of online communications), and forcing ISPs to record every internet user's internet history for a year. Critics have already noted that while some of these measures might help police track terrorists, others would do nothing to prevent suspects who are using more secure communication methods.
Speaking to The New York Times, an unnamed European counterterrorism official stated that it was probable that the Paris attackers used encrypted communications to organize themselves: "The working assumption is that these guys were very security aware, and they assumed they would be under some level of observation, and acted accordingly." The anonymous official offered no evidence for his claim, but Islamic terrorists are known to distribute their own encrypted software, such as the open source Windows program Asrar al-Mujahedeen or Mujahedeen Secrets.
The exact story of how the Paris attacks were organized, however, is still very unclear, and it's difficult to say right now what more could have been done in the realm of surveillance. Jim Killock, director of the UK-based Open Rights Group, tells The Verge that whatever happens next, the government's response must be "considered" and not rushed. He says: "The Investigatory Powers Bill is one of the most important bills that this parliament will pass and it is vital that it is scrutinized and debated properly."
Update November 17th: Home secretary Theresa May has since downplayed Cameron's comments, telling the House of Commons that the bill deserves "proper scrutiny in Parliament."