With checks and balances, enhanced security need not erode privacy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 12:51am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 9:19am

The jihadist killing spree that left 17 dead and paralysed Paris for days in January has prompted French lawmakers to grant the state sweeping new powers to spy on its own citizens' communications. That is not unprecedented in Europe, where governments have introduced such measures, sometimes covertly and illegally, and expanded them incrementally ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. This is despite the recent controversy over American electronic spying on Europeans. What sets the new measures apart is that they go further than anything before, including compelling internet providers to install new analysis tools to flag patterns of "suspicious" online behaviour. Human-rights and civil-liberties advocates fear other countries will follow suit in what one described as a "race to the bottom".

Had they been in place already, would they have prevented the Kouachi brothers killing 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo , or averted the taking of hostages at a kosher grocery by Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four of them plus a policeman? Not necessarily, say critics, who point out that the Kouachis and Coulibaly were already targeted by intelligence agencies, which need more resources and funding to investigate suspects, rather than wider powers.

However, despite France's respect for civil liberties and privacy, and the opposition of internet companies and civil-liberties advocates, the new measures aroused little debate. European public opinion began shifting long before the Paris slaughter. Indeed, Britain has long tolerated CCTV street surveillance and France's new laws legalise covert snooping. In the internet age, expectations of privacy are much lower. For example, if Hong Kong were targeted by terrorists we could expect more public support for unprecedented, intrusive security measures. In putting security ahead of privacy, France is saying where it stands on a question that many other major nations may have to face one day. That said, judicial oversight and checks and balances should not be dispensed with lightly.