Posted by Kristin McCarthy on November 30, 2015 in Blog

As we saw in the wake of the  9/11 terrorist attacks and now in the aftermath of ISIL’s attacks in Paris, governments respond to these heinous terrorist operations with legislative efforts that seek to restore a sense of security by increasing government surveillance powers. Here in the U.S., we are still fighting to reign in many of the surveillance powers that were enshrined in the PATRIOT Act immediately following 9/11, under which counter-terrorism surveillance programs like the NYPD spying unit operated and under which the bulk collection of US citizen and non–citizen data expanded rapidly. 

Image by David Fitzsimons, Arizona Daily Star

We are seeing a similar conversation around counter-terrorism and surveillance take shape across Europe and in the US following the Paris attacks. While there is a real need for governments to gain the upper hand against terrorist activity at home and abroad, as we saw with the PATRIOT Act, surveillance authorities that the government is granted in times of emergency are not likely to go away when the emergency has abated. The repercussions of legislation and actions taken now, will undoubtedly shape the future of emerging surveillance states.

Here are suggested readings for those looking to understand what exactly is happening to the surveillance landscape currently, and why we must advocate for the protection of civil rights and civil liberties even in times of heightened security concerns; indeed, in times of crisis we must fight to avoid knee jerk reactions that elevate security at the expense of the Constitution . In the technology age where the tools that enable surveillance are ubiquitous and powerful, it’s important to understand how surveillance impacts our civil society, individual rights, and the principles that define American democracy. These pieces discuss the ways surveillance powers are in tension with these important principles:

  • Surveillance Beyond the Patriot Act” is a short podcast which gives a background on the surveillance powers granted by the PATRIOT Act and on the efforts to roll back those powers stands. Although some of the PATRIOT Act’s powers have been curbed by the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act earlier this year, those reforms are being challenged by law makers who do not want to deny any counter-terrorism tool to the US government, no matter how constitutionally problematic it might be. The podcast also covers how an unknown proportion of US surveillance operations happens under the authority of Executive Order 12333,  which is used by the President and has no oversight by Congress. 
  • After the Paris Attacks France Enacts Sweeping Legislation Limiting Fundamental Freedoms.” France declared a three-month long State of Emergency following the attacks, and extended a long list of powers to the government to snuff out ISIL networks in their country. Since then, we’ve seen France successfully disrupt cells planning further attacks, and we’ve seen raids in Brussels result in numerous arrests.It’s important to understand that the powers granted by the State Of Emergency are vast, and France’s President Hollande has already proposed enshrining these powers in the country’s constitution for future emergencies. 
  • Terrorism in the Age of Trump” looks at how the Paris attacks are having a major impact on the 2016 election cycle. Many Republican candidates – not only Donald Trump – have espoused dangerous ideas on how the US should combat the threat of ISILin the US. Proposals have ranged from sending ground troops to Syria, ending the refugee resettlement program or imposing religious tests, to creating a database of US Muslims and monitoring US mosques as well as “places of inspiration.” All of these proposals speak to how candidates negotiate the delicate and pivotal balance between national security and civil liberties.
  • Encryption Solution in the Wake of Paris….” is an article written by a technology expert who gives a thorough explanation of why giving the government back-door access to encrypted technology like iMessage and Android phones is problematic not just for tech companies, but for the government and private citizens. 
  • On the Eve of bulk collection’s expiration, a Paris-inspired bid to revive it.” Just yesterday, November 29th, the NSA’s ability to collect bulk phone record data enumerated in the PATRIOT Act expired, and was replaced by a new set of laws in the USA FREEDOM Act. This piece looks at the lawmakers who are leading the charge to bring back some of the PATRIOT Acts most rights-infringing powers – even though, at best, the USA FREEDOM Act did not change how much data the US government can access, but does change how they can access it by requiring a specific target.
  • "Lockdown Life” takes an up close and personal look at what what it is like in Brussels under heightened security. Following the attacks, Brussels police have conducted 19 raids on the Molenbeek district where citizens who are known to have trained with ISIL in Syria have been able to return and organize. The intelligence on criminal residents in Molenbeek, some of whom lead the Paris attack organizing efforts, were well known to authorities in France, Brussels, the Mayor of Molenbeek, and many other countries. We cannot overlook the fact that the great majority of the Paris attackers were known to authorities and their names appeared on many terrorist watch lists. That would seem to suggest that our ability to identify terrorists is reasonably sound, but the ability of governments to monitor and arrest those terrorists is where the weak spot is. 
  • From 2014 - Human Rights Watch and the ACLU put out a brilliant report, “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law and American Democracy”
  • And from a few months before the Paris attacks, “Surveillance of BLM Movement Recalls COINTELPRO” gave an important dissection of how the US government has used surveillance programs to spy, disrupt, and incriminate social movements that oppose government policy. It is startlingly to consider how new advanced technology and surveillance tools the government has turned those powers against their own citizens.