In the wake of the Paris attacks, there have been fresh calls for tech companies to weaken their privacy protections to allow western security services to monitor online communications.
Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called on Silicon Valley to “not view government as its adversary.” Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also condemned tech companies for “allowing evil monsters” to communicate behind encryption.
“What atrocity will it take for the Gods of Silicon Valley to wake up to the dangerous game they are playing?” screams an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph. Allowing the government access to all of our online communications, so the argument goes, is the only way to beat ISIS.
They’re wrong. Firstly, the effectiveness of online surveillance is still an open question. After British Army soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by a pair of Islamic terrorists in 2013, it emerged that British security had been monitoring his killers for years, and had already identified him as “lone wolf.”
Allies of the security services sought to blame Facebook for not providing them with enough information, but GCHQ had already been tracking the online comments of Rigby’s killers. If years of surveillance can’t stop a terrorist attack, it’s worth pondering if online surveillance hasn’t become to security what Twitter and Change.org are to activism – a flashy, modern alternative to real action.
But the real argument against allowing governments a “back door” into all of our computers and mobile devices is much simpler, and will be familiar to most conservatives: the government is not your friend.
This is why the same Anonymous hackers who, at the last count, have taken down tens of thousands of ISIS accounts and hundreds of websites would strenuously object to any attack on encryption. Under the law, Anonymous are vigilantes engaged in illegal acts of cybercrime. Without the protection of encryption, most of Anonymous would be behind bars – even if their targets are Islamic terrorists.
But the real urgency of protecting encryption can be grasped not when we consider what the government might do now, but what they might do in the future. Breitbart readers will be familiar with the slow, relentless push to brand conservative groups like the Tea Party as terrorist organisations.
A quick Google search reveals dozens of progressive blogs earnestly and furiously describing Tea Party members as domestic terrorists. If they were ever branded as such by a future progressive government, there would be no obstacle to the powers of the NSA or the Department of Homeland Security being slowly, incrementally turned on the American people. And when that happens, conservatives would be far safer if those powers were not extensive.
The harsh reality? This redefinition of the word “terrorist” is already well underway. Last month, the Obama Administration announced a new office at the Department of Justice dedicated to combating “domestic terrorism.”
The new office would work with the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an organisation that put GamerGate – yes, GamerGate – on its “hatewatch” blog.
The most likely target of the new push against “domestic terrorism” will be conservatives, not gamers. Comparisons between the Tea Party and terrorists are already commonplace among Democrats, even going as high as Vice President Biden.
As anyone who has followed U.S. politics in the last few years knows, conservative groups have already been the target of punitive action by a government agency: the IRS. For conservatives, it would be uncharacteristically trusting of government to assume that the security services, given the power to break any encryption, wouldn’t do the same to them, given the chance.
That doesn’t mean that conservatives are the only ones who should be worried. Instances of police and F.B.I infiltration of left-wing activist groups, from environmentalists to Occupy Wall Street, are also well-documented.
Anonymous and associated hacking groups can hardly be accused of conservatism, yet they too are the targets of western governments. (In notable contrast to China, who tend to recruit hackers rather than persecute them.) Anyone outside the Overton window, on the left or the right, is liable eventually to be targeted by the state.
To assume the government can be trusted with the contents of your computer and smartphone is to assume that it will always be benevolent, and furthermore that it will always pick the right targets. ISIS certainly is the right target, but the the fact that the government gets it right once is no guarantee that it will get it right forever.
Indeed, if their track record of targets is any guide, they get it wrong more often than not. Conservatives in particular should remember their scepticism of government when considering surveillance powers.
READ: This post is a response to Milo Yiannopoulos’s “Silicon Valley Has A Duty To Help Our Security Services”